A cemetery from the 3000 BC to the 6th century AD (Roman times), Keramikos was originally a settlement for potters who were attracted by the clay on the banks of the River Iridanos. Because of frequent flooding, the area was ultimately converted to a cemetery. Rediscovered in 1861 during the construction of Pireos St, Keramikos is now a lush, tranquil site with a small but excellent museum containing remarkable stelae (stone slabs) and sculptures, a good collection of vases and terracotta figurines.
Once inside, head for the small knoll ahead to the right, where you’ll find a plan of the site. A path leads down to the right from the knoll to the remains of the city wall built by Themistocles in 479 BC, and rebuilt by Konon in 394 BC. The wall is broken by the foundations of two gates; tiny signs mark each one.
The first, the Sacred Gate, spanned the Sacred Way and was the one by which pilgrims from Eleusis entered the city during the annual Eleusian procession. To the northeast is the Dipylon Gate – the city’s main entrance and where the Panathenaic Procession began. It was also where the city’s prostitutes gathered to offer their services to travellers. From a platform outside the Dipylon Gate, Pericles gave his famous speech extolling the virtues of Athens and honouring those who died in the first year of the Peloponnesian Wars.
Between the Sacred and Dipylon Gates are the foundations of the Pompeion, used as a dressing room for participants in the Panathenaic Procession.
Leading off the Sacred Way to the left as you head away from the city is the Street of Tombs. This avenue was reserved for the tombs of Athens’ most prominent citizens. The surviving stelae are now in the National Archaeological Museum, so what you see are mostly replicas. The astonishing array of funerary monuments and their bas reliefs warrant close examination. Ordinary citizens were buried in the areas bordering the Street of Tombs. One well-preserved stela (up the stone steps on the northern side) shows a little girl with her pet dog. The site’s largest stela is that of sisters Demetria and Pamphile.