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Elefsina 2023: Mysteries past and present

Maria Rigoutsou in Elefsina | Florian Schmitz in Elefsina
February 3, 2023

On February 4 and 5, Elefsina celebrated its inauguration as European Capital of Culture — the smallest and oldest to date. Visitors enjoyed a mammoth program that broke with the typical image of Greece.

People watch a performance in an outdoor theater in front of the old train station in Elefsina, Greece
The Greek city of Elefsina will be one of three European Capitals of Culture in 2023Image: Eleusis23/dpa/picture alliance

An artist once said that anyone who can change Elefsina can change the whole world. And there are certainly enough reasons to want to change this small seaside city.

Elefsina (known in ancient Greece as Eleusis) has a population of 25,000 and is situated about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) west of Athens. This is no picture postcard Greek town: There are no winding alleys, no people sitting outside taverns soaking up the sun and taking in the sparkling crystal blue sea.

View of a tree-lined street in Elefsina, Greece
Elefsina, the 'unpainted face of Greece: authentic, scarred, silent, dignified'Image: Maria Rigoutsou/DW

Instead there are plain, flat-roofed buildings, industrial ruins and a ship graveyard where disused boats are left to rust on the waterline. But in amongst all this are smiling people, warm-heartedness, openness and beautifully tended gardens. Elefsina is the unpainted face of Greece: authentic, scarred, silent, dignified.

Maybe this is what tipped the scales in Elefsina's favor and swayed the panel of cultural experts to select it, making Elefsina not only one of the three European Capitals of Culture 2023, but also the smallest and oldest in the history of the program.

Wide-ranging program of events

Here, in the birthplace of the great ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, 465 events took place in 30 different locations. The program for the year — entitled "Mysteries of Transition" — brought together 192 Greek and 137 international artists in 17 different disciplines. The concept is built on three thematic pillars: people, society, and environment and work. 

Michail Marmarinos sits among the ruins of the ancient city of Eleusis, Elefsina, Greece
Michail Marmarinos is general artistic director of Elefsina European Capital of Culture 2023 Image: Maria Rigoutsou/DW

The general artistic director of Elefsina European Capital of Culture is 66-year-old director and actor Michail Marmarinos. Speaking to DW among the ancient ruins of Eleusis, which are situated in the center of modern-day Elefsina, his enthusiasm for the program of events was palpable.

Ancient Eleusis' gift to humanity

Thousands of years ago, people came to Eleusis, hoping to gain an insight into the mystery of death with the help of the Eleusinian Mysteries — some of the most important initiation rites in ancient Greece. 

Poster for Elefsina European Capital of Culture 2023
The poster for Elefsina European Capital of Culture 2023 features wheat Image: 2023eleusis.eu

Although little is known about the great Eleusinian Mysteries, ancient Eleusis has shaped our modern lives in one very significant way. "It was here," explains Michail Marmarinos, "that people began cultivating wheat. And it was at that point that people ended their itinerant lives, stopped their nomadic wanderings in search of food." Marmarinos seems to know this magical, reverence-inspiring site like the back of his own hand. "Civilization begins with the cultivation of the earth," he adds emphatically.

Reviving an ancient theater

Just a stone's throw away are the ruins of the Telesterion, a great hall that Marmarinos describes as the first "informal" theater of the world — informal in the sense that the concept of theater as we know it today did not exist at the time.

Here, in 2023, choreographer Sasha Waltz and director Jochen Sandig put on the "Human Requiem," a symbiosis of sound, music, natural light and the human body. Marmarinos says that this aesthetic experience shows the audience that language alone is not enough. Romeo Castellucci's work "Ma" was also performed here. What the title means or what the performance will entail remains a mystery at this time. 

City of refugees

Another of Elefsina's historical pillars is industry, which has been both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because it provided work and a livelihood for thousands of refugees and displaced people who flocked to the region after the destruction of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir, Turkey) in 1922.

A piece of ancient Greek masonry featuring carved images of flowers and wheat, Elefsina, Greece
Where past and present collide: The ruins of the ancient city of Eleusis are in the heart of ElefsinaImage: Maria Rigoutsou/DW

But it was also a curse because the oil refineries, cement factories and other industries that existed here right up until the 1990s brought more than just employment and prosperity. Elefsina is situated in the western part of the region of Attica, which has some of the highest rates of cancer and pollution in Greece. 

Local involvement in a work of art

The past 30 years have seen a sharp drop in industrial activity in the region, which in turn has resulted in the economic decline of Elefsina. Industrial ruins are dotted all over the city. An old paint factory has been earmarked for redevelopment in 2023.

The aim is to turn it into a cultural center that will be part of Elefsina Capital of Culture's legacy and continue to be a cultural magnet even after the year has ended.

The old paint factory in Elefsina, Greece, under redevelopment
The old paint factory in Elefsina has been earmarked for redevelopment and will be turned into a cultural centre Image: Maria Rigoutsou/DW

One of the first guests is the visual artist Juan Santovala from Colombia, who created a work of art dedicated to the city's workers. People who have worked in the region's factories — or indeed still do — are involved in the project. A ceramic helmet has been produced for each of them and given to them as a gift once the exhibition ends.

Greek roots of the European Capital of Culture program

Another location that is currently a construction site is the old olive mill, which was home to a flourishing soap factory from 1875 to 1960. It is currently being renovated and turned into a meeting place and center for the arts.

The first exhibition to be held there will be dedicated to Greece's former Culture Minister Melina Mercouri and her French counterpart, Jacques Lang. It was Mercouri who came up with the idea for the European Capital of Culture program in 1985, and Lang was heavily involved in its realization.

Rusting ships on a beach in Vlycha, near Elefsina, Greece
Intriguing or simply an eyesore? The ship graveyard near ElefsinaImage: Maria Rigoutsou/DW

Right beside the old olive mill is an open-air theater where, among others, the National Theatres in Novi Sad (Serbia) and Seoul (South Korea) will perform in 2023.

Hope of economic revival

Then there is the ship graveyard in the bay of Vlycha, where some 70 old wrecks have been left to disintegrate, polluting the sea with oil and rust. For many residents, it's nothing more than an eyesore that the Greek state has ignored for decades. Yet the abandoned ships are, in their own way, strangely fascinating: What have they seen? Where have they been? What stories could they tell? Just what Elefsina Capital of Culture intends to do with the site in 2023 is another mystery. 

Above all, the inhabitants of Elefsina hope that being a European Capital of Culture 2023 will bring prosperity to the city. They also hope it will bring many visitors from all over the world and that the central government in Athens will not forget them once it's all over this time next year.

Being in the cultural spotlight is also a motivation for the locals to build, repair or clean up the city's streets, squares and footpaths. For them, 2023 might well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pave the way for a brighter future. 

This article was originally published in German.

Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece