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Skirt-wearing, selfie-attracting elite guard unit of Greece turns 150

The Greek guard unit called Evzones turned 150 this year. They are now ceremonial but when founded in 1868, in the early years of the modern Greek state, they were a crack light infantry.

world Updated: Sep 29, 2018 15:35 IST
Evzones,Grrece,Greek men
Presidential guards, called "Evzones", march in central Athens on 23 September 2018 , as participating in Sunday's change of guards. (AFP Photo)

Already dressed in white leggings and black garters, Greek presidential guard Christos Lialis stands absolutely still so his watch mate can affix his many-pleated fustanella skirt, the unit’s world-renowned symbol.

He is used to standing still -- it’s required of the Evzones, the all-male guard symbolising the epitome of Greek valour, who are also a tourist highlight in Athens attracting countless selfies every day.

The Evzones turned 150 this year and while they are now ceremonial, when founded in 1868, in the early years of the modern Greek state, they were a crack light infantry.

They fought with distinction in the Balkan Wars, World War I, the Asia Minor Campaign and the Greco-Italian War.

Today, there are around 100 Evzones in a small compound in the National Gardens, a short distance from their guard duties at the Presidential Mansion and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Syntagma Square, Greece’s foremost military monument to the fallen.

They also raise the Greek flag on the Acropolis after sunrise every day and form a guard of honour during official visits by foreign heads of state.

An elite force still officially part of the Greek army, the Evzones are carefully selected each year from among the tallest and toughest of young Greeks on infantry conscript duty.

Applicants must be between 1.87 and 2.10 metres tall (6.1 to 6.9 inches) and undergo six weeks of tough training to prove themselves equal to the task.

Only a third of applicants are accepted.

Presidential guards, called "Evzones", leave their army barracks in Athens on September 20. (AFP Photo)

Movement ‘considered an outrage’

The Evzones’ commander, Captain Nikolaos Vavlekis, says new recruits must have “endurance, discipline and precision”.

Whether in rain, snow, or heatwave, Evzones are strictly prohibited from moving or making eye contact for the duration of their one-hour guard duty, no matter the reason.

They can only tap their rifle to alert their watch commanders and blink to communicate with them -- once for yes, twice for no.

“Any movement in response to external events is considered an outrage to the mission,” says Vavlekis.

Putting on the uniform -- which weighs more than 20 kilogrammes (44 pounds) -- takes a minimum of 45 minutes and is impossible without the aid of an Evzone’s watch mate, who is assigned to him for the duration of their service.

Their studded, tough leather clogs known as tsarouchia weigh another two kilogrammes, while their rifle adds another seven kilogrammes.

Even without being able to move a muscle, the Evzones exude a certain charm -- Pantelis Xystros, the unit’s Facebook administrator, says he met his future wife while on guard duty in 1976.

British tourist Caroline Perkins enjoyed seeing the Evzones.

“It’s very impressive to see these traditional clothes (...) very nice with their bearskins, different from ours,” she says, referring to Britain’s Queen’s Guard who also famously stand still -- and attract selfies.

400 pleats of history

The number 400 has special significance for the unit, symbolising Greece’s occupation by the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 years.

Accordingly, the Evzones’ white cotton skirt, the fustanella, has 400 pleats. And when carrying out their elaborate “Evzones step”, the unit’s upraised foot twirls a “4” in the air.

The rest of the outfit is also heavy with symbolism.

The fez is blood red and its black silk braids represent tears for the fallen, says resident tailor Vangelis Lazos.

The entire uniform is reminiscent of the peasant garb worn by the klephts, the irregular warriors of the Greek war of independence.

Taught by his father, who preceded him at the post, Lazos is among a small group of a dozen in-house cobblers, tailors and seamstresses who still craft and repair the Evzones’ uniforms by hand.

One of the ceremonial waistcoats takes six months to make, he says.

Lialis, 24, says he is “moved” as his service in the unit nears its end.

“Some of them break down in tears before their final guard duty,” says Dimitra Psychogiou, the unit’s public relations officer.

First Published: Sep 29, 2018 12:24 IST