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Walking along the waterfront of Elefsina, 20 kilometres north-west of Athens, it is hard to believe that this city of 30,000 inhabitants was once one of the most important sacred sites in ancient Greece. Now, the horizon is filled with merchant ships and factory chimneys, while the sound of seagulls mingles with that of trucks unloading goods.
For the record, Elefsina is the name of the city in modern Greek, while Eleusis is the name in ancient Greek. The European project (2023 Eleusis) chose to use the ancient name. In English, both Elefsina and Eleusis are used interchangeably.
Indeed, the traces of Elefsina’s glorious past are preserved at the ancient sanctuary of Demeter, in the heart of the city. The city has been named European Capital of Culture for 2023, along with Timisoara in Romania and Veszprém in Hungary. Strolling around the surviving marble columns, parts of the city seem frozen in time, but in reality Elefsina is in turmoil.
Due to its natural port and strategic location near the capital, Elefsina has always occupied a prominent position on the Greek map. Today, the city is a mirror of Greece itself, where the cult of the past meets the challenges of the present. Hard hit by the economic crisis in recent years, residents now hope to write a new chapter in the city’s history thanks to the allocation of European funds.
From 1600 BC to 400 AD, the city was known as a place of pilgrimage for the Eleusinian mysteries; the most secret religious rite of ancient Greece, whose followers had to swear a vow in order to keep secret the ceremony.
Elefsina sanctuary was the place of worship of Demeter, the fertility god, and her daughter Persephone. The rite symbolised the myth of Demeter who descended into the underworld to find her abducted daughter. According to the myth, they both succeed in returning to the world – a return that signified rebirth and the coming of spring. Therefore, during the pilgrimages Eleusis represented the gate to the underworld, but also the destination for a new beginning.
Today, behind the marble of the sanctuary, visitors can clearly see the smokestacks of abandoned or dying industries. During the 20th century, the march towards industrialisation completely changed the city landscape. Shipyards, steel industries, construction companies, oil mills, wire factories and petroleum reshaped the image of the contemporary Elefsina. Industrial activity developed anarchically on the antiquities and next to the residential area.
Then, at the end of the 20th century, industries hit by the economic decline began to close. The Greek debt crisis, which erupted in 2009, dealt the final blow to city’s productive engine. Now, the city is hoping that a “cultural renaissance” will reverse its financial fortunes.
From the shadows to spotlight
Panos Gkiokas is co-founder of Mentor, a company established by locals determined to promote Elefsina’s cultural heritage. Before the city was named European Capital of Culture, stray cats and schoolchildren from Athens were the main visitors to the archaeological site. But lately, more and more tourists are coming, intrigued by its mythical history.
“For a long time, Elefsina was penalised by its proximity to Athens: all energies and funds were directed to the capital, while Elefsina sank in general indifference. But today, we aim to become a source of attraction for the capital itself, thanks to our cultural activities,” Gkiokas tells Euronews Culture.
As a matter of facts under the impulse of the European capital initiative, the spaces of former mills, warehouses and industries have been converted into theatres, museums and meeting places dedicated to cultural events.
Gkiokas grew up in Elefsina, and never thought of leaving the place where he was born. However, many of his peers hurt by the economic crisis, have left in search of a better future abroad. Thanks to its position close to Piraeus, the main Greek port, Elefsina has always been a place where tales of loss and arrival have been recounted. This after all, is where many Greek refugees from Asia Minor settled after the end of the Greek-Turkish war, in 1922.
Meeting migration and modern challenges
Asia Minor refugees doubled Elefsina’s total population Alongside Arvanites, a bilingual Greek population of Albanian origins settled in the city for centuries, there were also Greeks who emigrated from the poorest regions to be employed in factories. It left the city both enriched culturally and economically.
“From this point of view, Elefsina represents some of the most important challenges Europe is facing nowadays: that of managing the migration phenomenon as an opportunity for enrichment and creating new jobs in territories abandoned by industries,” says Gkiokas.
The European artistic program, named 2023 Eleusis and led by the general artistic director Michail Marmarinos, focuses on three thematic axes: the first is people, to discover hidden aspects of cultural diversity; the second centres on the environment, seeking new ways to define the relationship with nature.
Finally, the European artistic program is focused on labour and explores the common continental challenges of precariousness and the model of a sustainable economy.
“The project is based on the idea of how we would like Elefsina to change for the better for its own inhabitants,” says Angeliki Lampiri, director of Cultural Training of 2023 Eleusis. “Our greatest achievement is to build something to remain. We have started to change the general mindset and prove that culture is a toll for economic recovery, but we will see the results in the next decade,” adds Lampiri.
Thanks to the European project, a choreography academy named U(R)TOPIAS has been established in a former bowling centre in Elefsina.
“When we started working on the project, I imagined this Academy as I would have dreamt of it at the beginning of my career” artistic director Patricia Apergi tells Euronews Culture.
“I wanted the Academy to offer the opportunity that so many of us did not have. Like many choreographers, I had to train abroad because there are no similar places in Greece,” says Apergi.
More than 15 choreographers have participated in academy projects so far. Next June, six artists will stage the choreographies they are working on, with one aim: to build a bridge between their art and the host city.
“Some of the choreographers are studying the trade union struggles that once fuelled the city industrial hub. Others are researching the history of ancient Elefsina. From these stories they draw inspiration for new choreographies. After all, we believe it is important to leave a contribution not only to Greece, but to the city,” adds Apergi.
The start of 2023 saw the walls of many Elefsina buildings covered with quotes from great artists who visited the city in the ancient and recent past. Among them, the ancient roman philosopher Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) wrote: “There are holy things that are not communicated all at once: Eleusis always keeps something back to show those who come again”.
The spirit of Eleusis 2023 seems to be encapsulated in this sentence: it’s the wish for a return, and a homecoming. The residents of the small city that grew up in the shadow of Athens still look towards the sea, but today they wish to welcome rather than leave.