It might be the short, pleated kilts, tasseled black garters and pompom-tipped shoes, but there’s something more endearing than intimidating about Greece’s best-known military unit, the Presidential Guard.
Which helps explain why they are one of Athens’ most popular tourist attractions, vying for camera clicks with the millennia-old ruins of Greece’s Golden Age.
All its members are conscripts picked for height and posture — and must demonstrate their godliness by belonging to the Orthodox Church of Greece.
Their function is to stand sentry at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and outside the residence of Greece’s titular head of state, keeping unflinchingly still for hours when not performing a clockwork-soldier routine of ponderous leg and arm swings and crashing presentations of arms.
But during Greece’s years of financial meltdown, the guards have several times been forced to abandon their posts as anti-austerity protests turned violent next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is just in front of parliament, with the sentry posts occasionally burnt down.
Created 150 years ago as a fighting force that distinguished itself in a series of wars, the unit is now purely ceremonial in function, codifying in its dress and routine a popular conception of Greekness that evolved since the modern Greek state was formed nearly two centuries ago.
Its Greek name — Evzones, or well-girt youths — is a 3,000-year-old word reactivated in the 19th century as the fledgling country strove to cement its blood ties with the glories of antiquity.
The complex uniform was inspired by the highland dress worn while Greece was still in thrall to the Ottoman Turkish empire, although the authentic, long version of the kilt was probably pioneered by southern Albanian settlers allied with the Turks.
The kilts are now drastically shorter than those sported by the rugged revolutionaries fighting the Turks in the Greek War of Independence. In another novelty, they are made with exactly 400 pleats, to symbolize the roughly four centuries of Turkish dominion that the revolution brought to an end, while the ornately-embroidered waistcoat bears secret Orthodox Christian symbols.
The clothes take months to make, with most of the effort going into the needlework — a dying art in a country where that type of costume went out of fashion well over a century ago, being replaced by the “Frankish” clothing of the West.