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Perched on a hill facing the crystal-clear sea waters of Greece’s Saronic Gulf, ancient Eleusis stood in full splendor over 3,000 years ago, attracting the powerful, the famous and the curious.
One of the most sacred cities of its time, its gleaming marble temples promised an entry point to the underworld and insight to its mysteries.
“Eleusis” in Greek means arrival. For centuries, initiates sworn to secrecy walked the 13-mile road from Athens known as the “sacred way” in torchlit processions, to take part in the Eleusinian Mysteries – rituals whose fame spread across the ancient world and remain one of antiquity’s best kept secrets.
Powerful mountains formed an awe-inspiring backdrop to sanctuaries devoted to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, and her daughter Persephone, who were worshiped here.
The myth of Persephone, who every year returns from the underworld, was used to explain the change of the seasons. The eternal cycle of nature’s life, death, and rebirth formed the Mysteries’ theme.
In more modern times, Eleusis has fallen from grace, as heavy industry both on land and in the water obscured its ancient marvels with construction and pollution.
Yet now the city is back in the spotlight. For 2023, it’s been given the title as a Cultural Capital of Europe – a title it shares with Timisoara in Romania and Veszprem in Hungary.
For the occasion, the city’s magnificent archaeological site has been overhauled, improving its accessibility. And its renovated archaeological museum has just reopened.
Being a Cultural Capital has helped dozens of cities that have previously held the title to foster urban regeneration and find a spot on the travel radar. Organizers of Eleusis 2023, a program of artistic events, are hoping for similar results.
An opening ceremony in early February offered a glimpse of the creativity in store.
Eleusis’ historic processions were revived with a modern twist as a Belgian collective called TimeCircus made a grand entry having traversed Europe pushing The Landship, a gigantic cart powered by human strength.
A spectacular light installation of a whale lit up the night sky, highlighting an environmental focus.
And, in the grounds of an old paint factory, Stereo Nova, Greece’s most popular electronic music duo of the 1990s, reunited for a one-off live event.
Among upcoming highlights this summer is a play, “Ma,” by Italian director and playwright Romeo Castellucci, a performance specially created to be staged in Eleusis’ archaeological site.
Eleusis, the birthplace of Aeschylus, known as the father of tragedy, is not only the oldest but also the smallest city to have ever been selected as Cultural Capital since the concept was created nearly 40 years ago. It’s also one in great need of improving its image – and environmental track record.
Highway to industrial hell
In the 19th and early 20th centuries Eleusis became a major industrial port. Factories, steel mills and shipyards drew thousands of workers from all parts of the country and region. Heavy industry took over the once stunning bay.
A blessing and a curse, industry kept thousands out of poverty but it also caused major environmental degradation, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when exponential growth was unregulated.
Smog obscured the beautiful views. The bay transformed into a ship graveyard. Eleusis became a modern version of the underworld, the “sacred way” having morphed into a road to hell.
Since the early 2000s much of that industry has declined. Environmental regulations are now better enforced and greater effort has been made to contain pollution.
Tall chimneys continue to tower above the archaeological space and an oil refinery, the biggest in Greece, looms in the distance. Eleusis’ Mayor Argyris Economou admits “there is still a long way to go. But we have started.”
Some of the old factories, among them monuments of industrial architecture, are now being transformed into cultural venues, as are some relics of local decline.
The repurposed former paint factory, a former olive oil mill and an old bowling alley are some of the 30 locations hosting this year’s events. Titled “Mysteries in Transition,” the cultural program brings together over 300 Greek and international artists.
In a recent interview with CNN, Despoina Geroulanou, the late president of 2023 Eleusis Cultural Capital, described a long-term vision, “a hub for the arts with residencies, annual festivals, educational programs. Digital nomads. A new community that will blend with the existing one. A legacy that benefits the city and its people.”
Environmental time bomb
The prospect is already bringing optimism to the city’s streets.
Antoniou’s deli is a local institution that first opened its doors in the 1950s. Nikos Antoniou, the son of the original owner, presides over a range of cheeses and artisanal delicacies from around Greece. He’s cautiously hopeful.
“The Cultural Capital could boost local businesses and also highlight the hidden beauty of Eleusis,” Antoniou says. “I grew up here with pollution being the main concern. A lot more needs to be done. Swimming in Eleusis is still only a dream.”
Relics from the old ships’ graveyard remain in the bay. The rusting hulls are a fascinating site, but also an environmental time bomb.
Michael Scoullos, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Athens and director of its Laboratory of Environmental Chemistry, has conducted extensive research and monitored water pollution in Eleusis for decades.
A strong environmental voice, he has led battles to clean up the area.
“The bay of Eleusis is not dead,” he says. “We are talking about a patient who can recover with the right treatment – and already partly has. A few years ago, for the first time ever, I saw dolphins and sea turtles, even a seal.”
Constructing a new cool
A land of legend, for so long snubbed by Athenians and visitors alike, Eleusis is seizing its moment.
The potential is there for all to see, and is neatly symbolized in the Ploutonion Cave, an eerie passage in the archaeological site that was believed to be a link between our world and the underworld – a transition point between light and darkness.
Today’s visitors to Eleusis will find pedestrianized roads lined with blossoming tangerine trees and colorful coffee shops that make for pleasant strolling, even in the winter. The blue and white seafront taverns add a small-town charm as leisurely ouzo drinkers fill their tables. For a moment it almost feels like postcard Greece.
Developers have been eying the derelict factories, in much the same way that industrial areas on the fringes of other global cities have been earmarked for hipsterization.
Just down the coastline – recently dubbed the Athens Riviera, a regeneration plan is already underway that will transform Ellinikon, the 600-acre site of Athens’ former airport, into Europe’s largest luxury development.
For now, Eleusis remains a workers’ city of around 30,000 inhabitants. A stronghold of labor movements, proud of the role that migrants have played in its history and continue to play today – it currently hosts Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression at a camp that has previously been home to Syrians and other Middle Eastern refugees.
An answer to overtourism
More than one million visitors from the US alone are expected in Greece this year, according to the Greek Tourism Ministry, which has forecast a strong year for tourism.
And with the majority of international flights landing in Athens, Eleusis is perfectly located as an easy-to-reach destination.
“Eleusis is also a growing attraction point for a new breed of experiential traveler,” says Yannis Zaras, the managing director of Big Olive, an Athens-based destination management company.
“People are rethinking what guides their destination choices. They want context that goes beyond the cliches of ‘nice’ or ‘eye-pleasing’. In a very contemporary context of environmental awareness and climate change: mistakes made, lessons learned, changes in the making, future. Eleusis is exactly that.”