top of page

Exarcheia: The Rebel Soul of Athens

Figure 1. "No land for poor", one of the most famous murales in Exarcheia [Photo] - Itinerari
Figure 1. "No land for poor" - one of the most famous murales in Exarcheia [Photo] - Itinerari

In the centre of Athens, a person can suddenly find themselves in a completely different neighbourhood than the surrounding ones. A reality made of graffiti, anarchy and culture, contrasting with the elegance of the nearby Kolonaki: this is Exarcheia. This district is a one-square-kilometer urban triangle in Athens' city center, accounting for only 0.21 percent of the whole metropolitan area. It has a population of 22,000 people, out of a total population of 5 million people in the city; as such, 0.6% is primarily made up of middle-class inhabitants and a large number of students, due to its proximity to the National Technical University of Athens and the University of Athens (Cappuccini, 2019). The neighborhood is often referred to as Athens' anarchist quarter, but there is far more to it than meets the eye. It is a vibrant area full of misfits of all kinds: students, artists, migrants and intellectuals, who all call Exarcheia "home."(Nast, 2020).

The reputation of Exarcheia as an anarchist bastion has certain historical roots. In 1941, the National Liberation Front (E.A.M. - Ethnikon Apeleftherikon Métopon) was created there, on Mavromichalis Street. The Greek People's Liberation Army (E.L.A.S.- Ellinikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos) was founded in 1942 at the initiative of the Communist Party of Greece, and became one of the most active forces in the fight against the Nazi-Fascist occupation. It was also the place where the first significant insurgency against the Colonels' dictatorship took place in November 1973 (Smith, 2021). The students of the Polytechnio (Athens Polytechnic), in fact, declared a nationwide strike and occupied the institution's offices for four days before the Junta crushed the uprising with bloodshed. The university served as a guide for the most radical political groups, primarily as a hub for public debate and cultural initiatives, and eventually as a safe haven during riots and police clashes.

A few years later, in 1985, amid riot demonstrations outside Piazzale Exarchion, 15-year-old Michalis Kaltezas was slain by a police officer. In 2008, another 15-year-old was shot by a police officer: Alexandros Grigoropoulos. This senseless murder was not the final wound inflicted on Exarchia, but it was unquestionably the most severe and memorable (Ibidem). The corner between Via Mesologgiu and Via Tzavella has acquired a symbolic significance of its own: a plaque commemorating Alexis' murder has been placed in a prominent location, as if to remind anyone passing by of the importance of the ideas developed and practiced in this peculiar urban quadrilateral (Greeck reporter, 2021). The teenager's terrible death profoundly changed and defined the area, serving as a rallying cry for the entire neighborhood and the rest of Athens. Since then, the area where the kid was killed has been informally dubbed "Alexander Grigoropoulou Street," and residents can donate to a shrine dedicated to his brief life (Ibidem).

Figure 2. View from a rooftop of a street in Exarcheia [Photo] - Federica Panico
Figure 2. View from a rooftop of a street in Exarcheia [Photo] - Federica Panico

Exarcheia has become a haven for all kinds of outcasts in Athens throughout the years. Several socialist, anti-fascist, and anarchist organizations are based in the area. It is also a favorite hangout for students, artists, and intellectuals of all stripes. Furthermore, Exarcheia welcomed displaced migrants during the mid-2010s crisis, squatting in abandoned structures to provide them with shelter (Athens Beyond, 2020). Incoming migrant flows have increased dramatically since 2015, while Greek institutions have shown themselves to be almost incapable of meeting the requirements of the displaced people (Dilouambaka, 2020). A similar situation has raised serious concerns for Greek society as a whole (Ibidem). In Exarcheaia, the response has been swift and rests on the pillars of solidarity and self-organization. Anarchist collectives mobilized immediately when the crisis broke out, occupying several abandoned houses to provide hospitality.

Notara 26 was the first squat to o