Kerameikos. War, Ritual, Trade and Prostitution at the Gates of the Ancient City

Kerameikos, namely the ancient neighbourhood of potters

What did it feel and look like standing before the two mightiest gates of ancient Athens on an ordinary and on a festive day, in peaceful and agitated times? What was to be discovered on either side of the city wall? Kerameikos, namely the ancient neighbourhood of potters, unfolds a caleidoscopic picture of peace and war throughout the glorious history of Athens.

A large  section of the city wall has survived the abuse of assaults and the decay of time in Kerameikos; here one can capture and enjoy a clear picture, complete with a ring street, a moat and an outwork, right before the main wall. The fortification wall was hastily built after the Persian retreat in 478 to defend Athens against its eternal enemy Sparta; since then in was destroyed and rebuilt a few times. The wall traversed and divided Kerameikos into two parts, a residential one within the wall and one outside the wall.

Outer Kerameikos was occupied by potters’ and vase painters’ workshops, drawn here from early on by the clay deposits of the small river Iridanos. These workshops provided the main bulk of the renowned Athenian vases, many of which were used as grave gifts or markers in the nearby cemetery, the city’s most extensive and important.

A cemetery for war heroes

The Kerameikos cemetery included both private, family graves with imposing sculptural decoration, and the Demosion sema, with funerary monuments reserved for war heroes and Athenian notables. Lining the streets in this much frequented and neuralgic place, the cemetery provided the perfect excuse to flaunt prosperity and supremacy. Women could be seen here all year round, paying frequent visits to their relatives’ graves, to clean and adorn them, to perform rituals and to connect with the souls of the dead.

The Dipylon Gate and the Sacred Gate

The most prominent and official gates of the ancient city still stand proud and mark the surviving section of the ancient wall:  the Dipylon Gate and the Sacred Gate through which passed two mains streets leading to Plato’s Academy and to Eleusis respectively. These gates were moreover the starting point of two main festive processions, one heading inwards to the Acropolis to honour Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, during the Great Panathenaia festival, the other outwards to Eleusis and the sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone, which housed the most famous Mysteries of antiquity.

A large building with a colonnaded courtyard and dining rooms was built in between the two gates; all necessary preparations for the great procession were made here, where also the Panathenaic ship was kept which carried on its mast like a sail the famous peplos for the cult statue of Athena, while officials and the people of Athens feasted on the meat from the great sacrifice to Athena.

… Keep Calm and Cool Down (!)

Outside and inside the Dipylon Gate, baths and a fountain house offered the weary travelers the opportunity to cool down and refresh themselves, while a brothel, tucked behind the Sacred Gate, welcomed them with wine and women. Organized around two courtyards, like an oversized  private house, the brothel yielded copious finds of both textile manufacture and drinking and dining ware; apparently it strived to emulate the sympotic atmosphere of an andron (men’s banquet quarter) in the oikos (the household), while fulfilling the fantasy of having liberal sex with a modest, productive housewife.

This article is written by Anthi Dipla, Archaeologist – Tour guide.

The tour is organised by #KedrosTravel

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