Changing of the guards is a very well-known ceremonial tradition in lots of countries. Of course, when we hear about it, we first think of the Buckingham Palace and the Guards of Her Majesty. Yes, but there is no doubt that this ceremony of the changing of the guards is very interesting in other countries as well such as Monaco, Bulgaria, Hellas, etc. I’ve just mentioned Hellas and it was on purpose because I have the intention to tell you want I know about Evzone soldiers and their unique uniforms as well as the ceremony held every hour in the Hellenic capital – Athens.
Let’s briefly review the history of Evzones and their too impressive ceremonial uniform. So …. They are closely connected to the history of Hellas and represent all the Greeks have been through as a people since ancient times. Yes, you read well ….. since ancient times. The word “Evzone” (“zoni” means “belt” in Greek and the literal translation is “well-belted” or “well-built”) was first mentioned by Homer in his Iliad. The reference was to elite soldiers (like today’s Presidential Guard) of that time who were always well-belted or very often to elite man in general who wasn’t necessarily a soldier of any kind. This explains the crystal clear fact that Evzones have been inseparable part of Greek military tradition since the Hellenistic period of time.
It’s little known (almost nothing is known) about Evzones’ uniform in ancient times. Unlike this, Klepth soldiers’ uniform is well known. It underwent several changes during the 4-century Ottoman occupation in Hellas. But despite this, it’s thought to be the prototype of today’s Evzones’ uniform with some modifications, of course. I mentioned the Klepths. But who were they? A Klepth was a Greek who was a member of the guerilla communities. These “partisan societies” were created immediately after the conquest of Hellas by the Ottomans and the Klepths fought for independence during this 4-century period of time. Moreover, they had the greatest impact in the Greek War of Independence. These soldiers wore their uniform and actually, a foustanella (a kilt) was added to it namely then.
You know that King Otto of Bavaria became the king of the newly-liberated country. As a matter of fact, he and his family weren’t favourites of the Greeks. Just on the opposite, they were considered outsiders. Under his 30-year reign, Evzones’ uniform was “Bavarian style”. Actually, it was introduced in 1833 and it was composed of blue trousers, a tailcoat and a shako (“shako” is a kind of a military helmet). It underwent new changes only four years later, i.e. in 1837, and we can say that this was the “second prototype” of today’s uniform.
In present times Tsolias is the colloquial term used for a modern military in Hellas. Some of them could become Evzones taking on ceremonial duties. Thus an ordinary Tsolias turn into an Evzone who wears the traditional Evzone uniform. And what do these Greek soldiers do? They are members of the Presidential Guards. They have only ceremonial duties but very symbolic at the same time. The major one is being guards of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Parliament on the Syntagma Square in Athens, which is believed to be a very prestigious discipline for Greek soldiers. They also march in official parades on official holidays, for example. No matter what, Evzones wear typical and unique uniform which is worn on such occasions but not in combats.
How exactly does Evzones’ uniform look like? It is a ceremonial one and it can vary at the different times of the year. Thus it is closely tied to both Hellenic military history and regions. As a matter of fact, there are three main types of the uniform (the traditional Cretan Evzone dress, the Ponti Evzone uniform and of course, the traditional “pleated foustanella” style uniform), each of them having their own symbolic meaning. The first one belongs to Cretan soldiers and it represents Greek Islands. It doesn’t consist of a kilt but of dark blue trousers (probably, this is heritage from King Otto’s times). Then the Ponti Evzone uniform comes. Its design is made in order to honour all the Greeks who once lived in the Pontic Region which is in Turkey nowadays. And finally Evzones have their traditional “pleated foustanella” style uniform which we know so well.
The latter consists of several parts which are highly symbolic, too. Evzones wear pharion on their heads. It’s a red hat with a long tassel, somehow resembling an Ottoman fez (but it’s not). I will humbly advise you not to make such a comparison because you might get into a very uncomfortable situation and you will make a cultural faux pas. Evzones wear a phermeli which is a vest-style waistcoat over the white shirts with wide sleeves. It’s not a typical waistcoat and it’s worn so that the interesting sleeves are “on display” and shown off. It is always handmade and embroidered representing symbols from the various parts of Greece.
The third and the most important part is the famous pleated foustanella. Actually, it’s a kilt but not an ordinary one. Why? Because it’s the most symbolic element of the uniform. 30 metres of white fabric is needed to prepare one foustanella since it must have 400 pleats (folds). In order to explain why exactly 400, I ought to remind you of the Klepths (the soldiers who fought against the Ottoman rule in Greece). They added a foustanella to their uniform. In order to honour their feat and in order to commemorate these 400 years under the Ottoman rules, today’s Evzone foustanella is pleated 400 times – each fold corresponds to one year when Hellas was occupied by the Ottomans. Klepth soldiers also added Tsarouchia (or clogs) to their uniform.
Evzone uniform is also decorated with krossia which braided ropes in blue and white, which are the colors of the Hellenic national flag. As to the last parts of the uniform we can enumerate the following other elements: periskelis (or these are the breeches), the belt, garters (if they are blue, it means the Evzone is an officer), another garter (it has to hold the stockings up), stivalia (the boots) and sabre.
If you are in Athens, the Changing of the Guards is a must-see. So, plan a stop to watch it on the Syntagma Square in your trip around the city. If you’re there at 11am on Sunday mornings, you will be luckier because namely this ceremony is the “most official one”. On the other hand, you might have a photo taken with the Evzones there. It’s a great attraction, indeed. But have in mind that you mustn’t talk to them, make silly faces and gestures, or touch them. If you do it, Evzones will make noise with their rifles and you will be kindly asked to leave the place around them.