How Athens’ neighborhoods and squares got their names

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Syntagma Square, Athens. Credit: public domain

There are several famous – but oddly named – neighborhoods and squares in Athens and even Athenians don’t know how they first got their nicknames.

Plateia Amerikis, or America’s Square, is an iconic square in Athens. The bustling square was named in 1927 because the city council wanted to show its appreciation for the philhellenism shown by the United States.

Until then, it was called the Place Agamon, or the “place of the celibates”. It was named so in 1887 in honor of three middle-aged Athenians who ran a cafe in the square and were all, apparently quite famous, single.

Until the end of the 19th century, Ambelokipi (which means vineyards in Greek) was an area which was indeed full of vineyards and orchards, which were irrigated by water from the Adrianian aqueduct which gushed out from Agios Dimitrios from the early 16th century. , when the main pipeline was destroyed.

athens neighborhoods places names
Anafiotika. Credit: public domain

Anafiotika, the district of Athens that looks like an island

Anafiotika is an Athenian district on the northern slope of the Acropolis hill. Particularly picturesque, with tiny houses and alleys resembling those of a Greek island, it was created around 1860 by craftsmen and workers who came from the island of Anafi to work on the excavations of the Acropolis, but also to build the capital, which was then a relatively new city.

One of them, under the pretext of building a small church, gathered materials and with the help of a carpenter, he made a house overnight and settled there. In a few days (or nights…) the builder was helping the carpenter to make his own house. Hence the name Anafiotika, or Little Anafi, of these two masters of this island.

Vathi, or “deep” place, takes its name from the lower part of town, where the waters of the Cycloborus stream ended. After the area was drained for construction work, Vathi Square was established in 1926.

Gazohori, or Gas Village, was a colony of shacks and shelters that was tinkered north and west of the gas plant during the first decades of King George I’s reign.

Originally, Athens’ poorest families lived there, and the bellies were shabby. Today it is called Gazi and it is a lively area full of bars and restaurants; the old gas plant has been transformed into a complex where exhibitions, concerts and other events take place.

Votanikos Square was named after the Botanical Gardens, which since 1836 have been the place where trees were planted under the order of King Otto for the establishment of greenery in the city. The same decree stipulated that the Botanical Garden would be used by the Physical History Society, medical schools and higher education establishments in the city.

monastiraki square acropolis athens history
Monastiraki Square, Athens. It takes its name from the small monastery located in the square. Many places and neighborhoods in Athens have interesting names. Credit: C Messier / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Yusurum Square, Monastiraki’s flea market, was named by Greek-Jewish entrepreneur Elias Yusurum, who opened the region’s first antique store at the end of the 19th century.

In Monastiraki there is also a flea market, the area is packed with tourists all year round due to its proximity to the Acropolis and other archaeological sites. Monastiraki, or “small monastery”, owes its name to the ancient monastery of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, whose enclosure gave its name to Monastiraki square.

Exarchia got its name around 1900 from the surname of Exarchos, a man from Epirus, who had a grocery store on the southwest corner of Themistokleous and Solomou streets. The famous “blue building” in Exarchia Square was built before WWII. Today, Exarchia is known as a counterculture area full of artists and anarchist groups.

The Thissio district owes its name to an ancient temple, located at the top of Agoraiou Kolonos. Its ruins were discovered in 1931 during excavations by the American School of Classical Studies. In the past this temple was converted into a Christian church and during Frankish rule it was a Catholic church.

Ilissia was named by the Duchess of Plakentia who built her mansion near the Ilissos river and gave it the name of the river. Today the mansion houses the Byzantine Museum.

“The square of tears”

Klafthmonos Square, or the Square of Weeping, owes its name to the late 19th century writer Dimitrios Kambouroglou who wrote about the spectacle of officials openly crying.

The finance ministry ignored the place at the time – and every time the government changed, civil servants were laid off so the new minister hired his own employees. The dismissed officials then went to the square after obtaining their pink slips and were known to burst into tears.

Kolonaki, or “little pillar”, the downtown district of the rich and famous, takes its name from a stone monument that existed until 1938 near Dexamenis Square and was later installed in Kolonaki Square.

Plaka, a neighborhood in Athens at the foot of Acropolis Hill, was first mentioned in the anonymous 17th century note “About Attica” from the Library of Paris. He mentions “various Albanian houses” in the area.

First, in 1833, J. Hann observed that Plaka comes from an Arvanite, or a language spoken by the Albanians who moved to Greece in the Middle Ages, the word plak meaning “old, aged.” As K. Biris writes, it is a “medieval name, which appeared after the end of the 16th century, when there was a colony of Arvanites outside the so-called Wall of Valerian”.


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