If you’ve been to Athens, you’ve probably watched the changing of the guard in front of the parliament or stumbled on the elegant, slow-marching soldiers on the streets around it. Perhaps you’ve also tried to get a reaction from these eternally stoic foot-soldiers—waving, making faces, taking photos—and failed. These guys are no joke.
Though some say the evzones can be traced back to Homeric, Byzantine and then Ottoman times, their official story starts in 1867 when four infantry regiments were created to guard the country’s borders. Their bravery during the Balkan Wars and the two world wars earned them an almost god-like reputation.
After World War II, the regiments were disbanded as part of the modernisation of the armed forces, save one unit that continues to exist in the capital. Its role is purely ceremonial. The evzones guard the Presidential Palace and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier around the clock. They raise the Greek flag at the Acropolis right after sunrise every Sunday, and lower it at sundown. They accompany the president on all his official visits abroad, welcome foreign leaders, and participate in two annual parades. Some represent their motherland in New York City’s annual Greek Independence Day parade, bringing tears of pride to the eyes of many Greek Americans.
Have you ever tried to stand dead still for ten minutes? It’s really not as easy as you think. At their post, the evzones must stand completely motionless and expressionless for an hour at a time. Self-control is key. They undergo special training to achieve this stillness, this stoicism, as well as to perfect that dramatic, synchronized march.
The presidential guard is an elite unit. Soldiers serving their mandatory military service are handpicked for their physical strength and traits. An evzone must stand at least 1.87 meters tall, it’s preferable for their knees to touch as they stand upright, and they must be fit enough to raise their legs to shoulder height, completely straight, as they march back and forth each day. This is all accomplished through five weeks of top-secret training that almost half of all chosen candidates fail to complete.
Those that do succeed are paired up with a “brother,” usually someone who looks very much like them. The duo then help each other dress; their uniforms—cotton in summer, woollen in winter—are handmade, from start to finish. They stand guard together, and if one is unable to attend to his duties, the other does not stand guard with anyone else.
Any form of communication while standing on duty is forbidden. However, a soldier in regular military uniform always accompanies each pair of evzones. In case of emergency, the evzone is allowed to communicate with him by hitting the butt of his gun on the ground. The soldier then moves in front of him, asks him questions, and the evzone blinks once for ‘yes,’ twice for ‘no’ and three times for ‘I don’t know.’ If someone tries to attack or touch them, their military chaperone will intervene on their behalf.
Evzones by Numbers
The number of pleats that make up the skirt, or foustanella, symbolizing the number of years that Greece was under Ottoman occupation.
The number of months that the embroidered vests take to complete.
The number of nails beat into the soles of their shoes, or tsarouhia, creating the sound you hear every time they take a graceful step. The sound is symbolic: it’s made so that our ancestors can hear that we Greeks are alive and free.
The number of hours it can take for the soldiers to get dressed for duty. Besides the intricate process of pulling on tights, securing undergarments with belts and ironing out bell-bottomed shirt sleeves, they also have to be spotlessly groomed and clean-shaven.