Eleusis (or Elefsis or Elefsina)

    Chronicle of a town

    Eleusis resembles a palimpsest manuscript. The history engraved on it repeated layers of writing, composing in the centuries' run a long and enchanting novel. Flourishing settlements, fortifications and spaces of religious worship were de­veloped in this place during the whole antiquity but also in modern times. This his­torical duration is easily interpreted because of the favourable situation of the town, a vital point from where main road arteries pass and connect Attica to the rest of Greece. At the same time, its harbour secured from the winds in a closed gulf, constitutes an exit of marine communication and a node of transit trade. To these factors the fact of disposal of fertile, cultivable land at Thriasio Pedio, should be added. The Eleusinian river Kifissos, nowadays called Sarantapotamos, crossed this important granary of Attica.


    The heart of all settlements developed in Eleusis, from prehistoric period up to modern times, constituted the most eastern hill of a low hill chain situated be­tween the plain and the sea. The archaeological studies certified that housing in the wider area of Eleusis begins in the 3rd prehistoric century, in the Lower Cop­per Age (2800-1900 B.C.). Foundations of homes dating from the Middle Copper Age (1900-1600 B.C.) are found on the top of the hill and on its slopes, while in the Upper Copper Age (1600-100 B.C.) the settlements seem to expand north­wards and eastwards to the foot of the hill. The main acropolis of settlements dating from the Middle and Upper Copper Age is located in distance of nearly 750m. westwards from the hill, at length of the ancient road leading to Megara. Gems of the ancient and impressive tombs of the "Western Cemetery" are ex­posed at the Archaeological Museum of the town. A group of prehistoric tombs of the "Western Cemetery" has been identified as the tomb of "Seven against Thebes", that ancient writers report to be found in Eleusis. Excavation works of the Archaeological Site assign the beginning of the worship of Demeter to the Upper Copper Age, identifying a mansion dating from the Mycenaean period, found under the classical Telesterion, as the first temple of the Goddess. This hypothesis strengthens the testimony of the "Homeric Hymn dedicated to Deme­ter", a poem created in 7th century B.C., that reports that during the kingdom of Keleos, in the Mycenaean period, the first temple of Demeter has been built at a place appointed by the Goddess herself.

    During the First Geometric period that follows (1100-900 B.C.) a dramatic re­duction of population is observed in Eleusis, as well as in the rest of Greece, as a consequence of the legendary "Movement of the Heracleidae", the Dorians.

    However, this turn does not have a big duration, as immediately during the next period of the Geometric Age (900-700 B.C.) the growth of the settlement is in­tense, as seen from the numerous gems of the ancient tombs from the "Western Cemetery", but also from the "Southern Cemetery", all of them investigated in the foot of the hill, from the side of the sea. At the end of the Geometric Period, in the 8th century B.C., the Sanctuary of Demeter acquires a Pan-Hellenic radi­ance, as written sources and findings testify. The growth of the Sanctuary in­creases even more in Ancient times (7th and 6th century B.C.) and the names of well known historians of this period are connected to Eleusis. Solon relates to the construction of the temple of the Goddess that dates from the beginning of the 6th century B.C., while to Pisistratus is attributed not only the Telesterion from the end of 6th century B.C., but also a line of other works, as the impressive for­tification of the Sanctuary and the citadel.

    In the last years of the 6th century B.C., the great tragic poet Aeschylus was born in Eleusis (525-456 B.C.). During the last decade of the 6th century B.C. with the democratic reform of Cleisthenes (508-504 B.C.) and the administrative division of the city of Athens in ten tribes, Eleusis is included in the tribe Ippothoontida and since then constitutes one of the municipalities of this tribe.

    The prosperity of the town and the Sanctuary is interrupted by the Persian wars. Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus distinguish in the fights against the in­vaders. In 480 B.C. the attack of the Persian troops has devastating conse­quences, as they leave behind them the town and the Sanctuary of Demeter in ruins and ashes. After the victorious outcome of the Naval Battle of Salamis and the battle of Plataea, the Greeks decide not to restore their profaned Sanctuary for a certain period of time, but to leave them as evidences of the barbarity and the impiety of the Persians. However, when the democratic power comes to Pericles, a new brilliant period for Eleusis and its Sanctuary begins. The enlighten leader could foresee the possibilities of glamour that a Pan-Hellenic Sanctuary, as the one of the Eleusinian Demeter, could bring to the city of Athens. He as­signs to Iktinos, one of the architects of Parthenon, the reconstruction of the Telesterion. However, the ambitious plan of the inspired architect has been im­possible to be realized with the technical possibilities of the time and the com­pletion of the temple is assigned to other architects, whose names are delivered to us by the written sources: Korivos, Xenokles, Metagenes. Together with the Sanctuary, the city is also thriving. During the Classical and Hellenic periods, the municipality of the Eleusinians is one of the most important in Attica, having many parliamentary votes. It collects incomes from the cultures grown in the plain, from the quarries of the Eleusinian stone, but also from its harbour, that has an artificial quay. Traces of this quay could be found just until modern times. The powerful fortification of the hill of the citadel, enforced by guards of adolescents that performed their military service, is a shelter not only for Eleusinians but as well for people from the small neighbouring municipalities. For the reasons that the region of Eleusis formed the western border of the city of Athens, it could not avoid the plunder and the destructions brought by the Peloponnesian war, though the Spartans respected the Sanctuary. After the end of the war, the Triacondas fortify Eleusis and after the triumph of Thrassivoulos and the democrats in 403 B.C. the supporters of the oligarchs come here. This division of the Athen­ian state doesn't last long and soon the municipality of Eleusis returns to Athens and since then it becomes its inseparable part and value guardian. Indeed, dur­ing the Hellenic period on the top of the most western hill, a fortification is built in order to support the defense of the town. It is rocky and steep and thus stays apart from the settlement. Only on its slope, a saint cave dedicated to Pana and the nymphs existed. From some epigraphic evidences it comes as a conclusion that the Stadium and the Theatre of Eleusis were situated at the south foothills of the eastern hill, outside the walls of acropolis, on a location where the facto­ries were built in modern times.

    The ages of Roman domination are the time when the Sanctuary of Eleusis is proclaimed a religious centre of universal importance. A number of Roman em­perors is initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries and show their favour of the Sanc­tuary and the town. During the period of the Roman Democracy (1st century B.C. - 1st century A.C.) the Lesser Propylaea of the Sanctuary are built from Clau­dio Appio Poulher. During the Imperial period, at the 2nd century A.C., the paved courtyard of the Sanctuary is formed and the two triumphal arcs, the Temple of Propylaea Artemis, the spring and the monumental Greater Propylaea are built. After the massive attack of the barbarous Kostovoks in 170 A.C, the Telesterion is rebuilt and widened. During the 2nd century A.C, the stoned four-arched bridge of the Eleusinian Kifissos and the Aqueduct, a large technical project that brought water from the sources of Parnitha Mountain for the needs of the Sanc­tuary and the town of Eleusis, are also constructed. Fragments of the Roman Aqueduct are saved alongside the western side of today's street Dimitros, while the bridge of Kifissos river, at the crossroad of the Sacred Way with the new high­way, constitutes one of the best saved pieces of the Roman way of bridge-build­ing. All these public works and mainly the universal fame of the Mysteries, convert Eleusis to a prosperous town. Outside of the yard of the Sanctuary, an entire sector of services for pilgrims, like inns, baths and restaurants, is developed.

    With the domination of the Christianity the deep respect for the Eleusinian reli­gion is not at once eradicated but it survives up to the end of 4th century A.C. Only after the strict orders of the Emperor Theodossius (379-395 A.C.) the prac­tice of the cult stops, and the final strike comes with the hordes of Alarichus in 395 A.C. that ruin the Sanctuary of Demeter and kill the last Hierophant.

    The destructive attack of the Goths of Alarichus brings an irreversible end to the Sanctuary, but it does not devastate irrevocably the area. Deprived of the an­cient fame, a small community of Christians survives through the late Christian and the early Byzantine period. The excavation works uncover foundations of residences of this period, which are evidences of this survival. The ruins of a basilica dating from the 5th century A.C. could be seen in the courtyard of Saint Zacharias, along with the ruins of a Byzantine fortification on the acropolis' hill. Apparently, fatal for the fortune of the inhabitants of the small Byzantine town of Eleusis were the invasions of the Arabs in Attica during the 9th century A.C. that led the area to desertion for a certain period of time. Somehow, the preservation of the toponym, no matter of the change to "Lepsina", is a mark of continuation of activities in the area. During the period of Franc domination, on top of the ruins of the Hellenic fortification of the western hill, a tower is built for the purposes to control the wider area, as well as the passages. The foundations of the ancient fortification and the Franc tower are demolished during the decade of 1950 while the western hill is quarried. During the 14th century A.C. the population of West­ern Attica is boosted because of the movement of Albanic tribes. The heart of the wider area is now a village sheltered in the heartland named Kountoura, and not the waterfront Eleusis that is directly exposed to piratical invasions. Only dur­ing the late Turkish domination some humble houses are built on the ruins of the ancient Sanctuary. The explosion of traveling and the revival of the spirit of the classical Antiquity, leads a number of Europeans to the small fishermen's village with the famous past. Some of them attempt illegal excavation works. The Eng­lishman Clarke in 1801 bribes the Turk administrator of "Lepsina" and transfers to his home country the marble statue of Caryatid of the Lesser Propylaea. Dur­ing the last years of Turkish domination, in 1812, the Company of Dilettanti at­tempts the first greater excavation research and study of the monuments of the ancient Sanctuary. This attempt doesn't have any continuation, as in 1821 the lib­eration battle of the Greeks against the ottoman yoke breaks out. The peasants of Lepsina together with the Kountouriots and the people from Dervenochoria take part in the battle and supply with turpentine and retsini the hydraulic fire ships. In 1826, the installation of a Greek caserne near to the hill of the antiqui­ties makes Eleusis a town defending the battles against the Turks in continental Greece and it hinders the activity of Kioutachi. Georgios Karaiskakis has the ad­ministration of the caserne and also the warm support of local combatants like Ioannis Chatzimeletis.

    After the liberation from the Turks, the gradual development of the village begins with the construction of some basic infrastructures in the area, like the carriage­ways towards Megara or Thebes (1839) and the installation of services, like the "Customs' Office in Eleusis" (1842), the "Health Office" for prevention of diseases' infection from ship crews (1845), as well as the Country Court (1849).

    In 1859, the fortuitous discovery of the “Great Eleusinian Relief”, a work of high artistic value dating from the 5th century B.C., in the courtyard of the post-Byzan­tine chapel of Saint Zachary, warms up the interest for archaeological research in the area. In 1860, the French archaeologist Fr. Lenormant, with permission of the Greek government, realizes excavation works of limited time and extent, as the progress of these works is hindered by the private houses built on top of the monuments. Only after the completion of a programme of extensive expropria­tion, in 1882, the Archaeological Society begins systematic excavations under the supervision of the first director D. Filios. The archaeological research, carried out for almost one century, by A. Skias, K. Kourouniotis, G. Mylonas and I. Travlos, brings out again the Sanctuary of Demeter and the Acropolis of Eleusis.

    The employment caused by the realization of excavation works, though seasonal, is one more factor of attracting labour force to Eleusis, in addition to the first at­tempts of emerging of industrial development. In 1875, the first factory in the area, the soap factory "Harilaos", is established. Other soap factories and flour-mills follow on the way. At the beginning of the 20th century, the wine and alco­hol society "Votrys" and the cement factory "Titan" are built. Few years later the distillery "Kronos" (1922) and the first varnish and paint factory in Greece "Iris" (1925) are established. Those important manufactures, as well as the smaller resin and pottery factories of the wider area, provide jobs and employment not only to the local population, but also to the refugees' wave that comes to Eleusis after the Catastrophe of Minor Asia in 1922.

    Those historical and economical evolutions change the character of Eleusis from rural to urban area. This rehabilitation can be seen, as well, in the private houses built in that period, from which few are still saved today in the "historical centre" of the modern town. In 1824, the public areas of the town, roads and squares, are supplied with electricity, and the public clock tower is built on the hill of antiqui­ties. The Eleusinian politician, Th. Pagkalos, after undertaking the political au­thority of the country in 1925, shows particular interest for his birthplace, instituting, through a legislative decree in 1926, a special tax policy "for the community and the harbour of Eleusis". The incomes of this tax, spent on road con­structions, plantation of trees, improvement of the schooling system, water sup­ply and cleanliness, contribute to the transformation of Eleusis into a modern town. The first attempts for cultural development based on those infrastructures.

    During the decade of 1930's two athletic clubs are created, the Paneleusian and the Eleusinian, as well as the philharmonic band of Eleusis is established that has a valuable activity. Besides, the Archaeological Site of Eleusis constitutes an at­tractive pole for refined guests and in some cases a place for organization of cul­tural events. In 1935, Angelos Sikelianos reads in the Telesterion in front of a big audience of spiritual people, the "Eleusinian Testament", a text that promotes Eleusis as symbol of renewal and purification of Greek life. Mark of the connec­tion of the great Greek poet to the place of the Mysteries constitutes also his poem "lera Odos" [Sacred Way] as well as the fact that in 1940 he marries his wife Anna inside of the Archaeological Site of Eleusis.

    The progress of the town, as well as that of entire Greece, is suspended by the beginning of the Second World War. Many Eleusinians sacrifice their life during the war against the forces of the Axe, while during the occupation the civil pop­ulation suffers the atrocities of the war, the starvation and the bombardments. Eleusis suffers a lot from the air bombardments, because of the military airport situated in the town. It has started functioning in 1938. In the meantime, in the surrounding hills, and mainly in the area of Dervenochoria, the armed battles against the occupants start, supplied and enforced by the underground organi­zation for resistance in Eleusis. The German occupants respond with repeated "blocks", from which the most ferocious is the one from 29th of April 1943.

    Within the same period, the Eleusinian Vasilis Laskos, governor of the submarine "L. Katsonis", pursues the Germans by sea until September 1943, when he dies as a hero when his ship is wrecked during the fight with an enemy warship.

    After so many fights and sacrifices, the bright day of the precious liberation of the town from the German conquerors, finally arrives on 12th of October 1943.

    After the end of the war, but also of the civil tragedy that follows it, Eleusis enters definitely into the course of industrialization. Its geographic situation and its har­bour favour the development of any kind of economic activities. Thus, apart from the old industries that are now modernized, new factories are established in the town area. In 1953 the steel factory starts functioning. In 1955 the oil factory is built and few years' later smaller factories like the ice factory and the shipyard Savvas are founded. The needs of the industries for labour force create successive waves of domestic migration. New inhabitants from the regions of Epirus, Chios, Dodecanese and Crete settle themselves in the town, which population in­creases very rapidly.

    However, the concentration of so many factories in the town and in the wider area of “Thriasio Pedio” [Thriasian Plain], where two refineries, two steel factories, two cement fac­tories, two shipyards, one factory of munitions and a number of smaller industries and manufactures are in function, has catastrophic results on the environment. The air and water pollution has negative consequences on the population's health. The strong protests and oppositions of the inhabitants result in remediate measures and in sensible reduction of the pollution.

    During the 21st century Eleusis is developed into a modern town which disposes of the distinctions of a glorious past. It constitutes the administrative centre of the wider area and is the headquarters of the Prefecture of Western Attica. The Archaeological Site and its Museum constitute areas of international promotion and tourist attraction. Furthermore, the Festival 'Aeschylians", the cultural events organized by the Municipality each autumn, is nowadays an institution that gives the possibility of expression of modern cultural matters of the town.

    Therefore, alongside with the economic development, the ongoing efforts for infrastructural improvement and protective environmental measures, efforts are made from the side of public authorities, private associations and individuals, for rehabilitation of the spiritual character of the town, so as to be worthy of the her­itage that bears the name "Eleusis".


    Kalliopi Papangeli - Archaeologist

    books and postcards
    books published by cyceon tales
    postcards published by cyceon tales
    third party publications about Eleusis

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