Known for their distinctive uniform, Greece’s mysterious and flamboyant elite Greek Presidential Guard, the Evzones, may initially appear to be a novelty designed to attract tourists but there is a lot more to them than that. The Evzones are an elite military unit and the official Presidential Guard of Greece. You’ll find them in front of the Hellenic Parliament in Athens, around the clock, 24-hours a day.
They’re a unique, select segment of the Greek Army and it’s considered the highest honour to be selected as one.
What are the Evzones?
Symbolising the epitome of the bravery and freedom of Greece, and honouring all those who have fought for the country throughout the years, the Evzones trace their foundation back to 1824.
At this time, Greece was fighting a war of independence against the Ottoman Empire; the Evzones themselves were the country’s first attempt at forming their own European-style battalion in an effort to beat the Turkish forces.
It wasn’t until 1868, during the first decades of a truly independent Greece, that the Evzones were formalised as they are today, tasked with protecting king, Otto, among other duties.
The word “evzones” actually goes back much further than 1824. It can actually be traced all the way to Homer’s 8th-century BC epic, The Illiad, where it was used to describe light infantry.
The word Evzones means “well-girt” — or physically fit, in essence. It is pronounced Ev-zon-ez.
How are Evzones selected?
From these very ancient times and throughout history, the skirt-clad Evzones have been at the top of Greece’s infantry units. The contemporary iterations are hand-picked from among the ranks of the Greek military, and it’s not a decision that is taken lightly.
There’s a lot to take into consideration to selected as a Greek Presidential Guard. Not only do candidates have to be in peak physical and mental condition, be super disciplined, have stamina in abundance, and be dedicated to serving their country, the hopeful Evzones also have to be at least 1.9 metres tall. They must also be Orthodox Christians — and men.
Of those who go through the training, only 50 percent make the cut. That’s because the training is very rigorous, to say the least. Even the most seemingly simple of tasks, standing still, becomes a trial in itself.
This begins with five minutes of being totally motionless, but in the midst of training could be any number of hours.
What do the Evzones do?
When they’re deemed worthy of taking on the role, the young men stand guard looking over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Working in pairs, they stand like statues outside the Hellenic Parliament in Syntagma Square, Athens. Here they will stand in all weather – from the baking heat of summer to the cold downpours of winter, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.
Even though they’re elite, they are still conscripts fulfilling their national service obligations.
Of course, it’s not just one set of guards standing there, motionless, the entire time — even these elite guards need to switch sometimes. It’s that changing of the guards that is one of the most sought-out spectacles in all of Greece: an icon of the Greek capital and the country as a whole.
Once every hour on the hour, the two guards switch with their replacements. The changing of the guards is a carefully choreographed, slow-motion procession that is said to help with the Evzones’ circulation after they’ve been standing still for so long.
Rifles held on their shoulders and legs kicking out, they stamp the floor in a rigid display of discipline and strength.
What is the story behind the Evzones’ uniform?
It’s not just the motions that the Evzones go through that draws crowds, but also their eye-catching uniform.
Far from being equipped like any other modern-day soldier, the Evzones have a beautiful uniform that is worn proudly, becoming part of their identity as they wear it.
Each Evzone receives a uniform that is handed down from a counterpart who is leaving the Presidential Guard. The new recruit receives this uniform, already handed down like a patriotic heirloom, along with the tsarouchia clogs.
Even the clothing they wear is imbued with history and sentiment. It is very symbolic in many ways.
Well looked after, clean and correct, the uniform consists of a red fario (similar to a fez), which represents the blood that has been spilt in fighting for Greece’s independence; the fario’s black tassel, hanging from the right-hand side of the hat, symbolises the tears cried by the country’s population during the war.
The white and blue fustanella (representative of the Greek flag) or “kilt” is a skirt-like piece of clothing, traditional to many of the Balkans regions.
Made up of 30 metres of fabric, the Evzones’ fustanella boasts 400 pleats, supposedly to represent every year of the Ottoman occupation of Greece. This is worn with a white shirt with billowing sleeves.
The ornate waistcoat is also laden with symbolism, much of it religious; there are the alpha and omega characters embroidered into it, as well as crosses and elaborate infinity symbols. It can take up to six months to stitch.
The tsarouchia – or clogs/shoes – are also eye-catching pieces of the Evzones’ uniform. Topped with large red pom-poms, this iconic piece of footwear also comes with 60 nails around the sole, supposed to give traction on rough terrain. They’re surprisingly heavy – 3.5 kilos, to be exact!
Where can you see the Evzones?
Unlike the changing of the guards that happens every hour from Monday to Saturday, the Sunday ceremony is a special chance to see the Evzones of Syntagma Square engage in a much more elaborate version of their well-known spectacle.
Every Sunday at 11 a.m. (and on national holidays) marks the Grand Change. Replete in their uniforms, the entire Presidential Guard regiment marches out from their barracks, through the streets of Athens, to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Police block traffic on the streets as crowds gather to see the Evzones march, accompanied by a marching band. If you’re in Athens during this time, it’s certainly a sight to see and one of the top activities in Athens that we recommend!
Changing of the Guard: every hour on the hour outside Parliament house on Leoforos Vasililisis Amalias Street. Cost: Free
Grand Change of flag: Every Sunday at 11 am at the Acropolis. You will need to buy a ticket to the Acropolis if you want to see the raising of the flag itself.
If you would like to stay very close to the Evzones then you can even see them from your room at the Grande Bretagne ( or the rooftop bar) or the NJV Athens Plaza hotels. There is also a great Airbnb apartment right on the square that has amazing views of the Acropolis and rooftop terrace!