The suburb of Elefsina, situated on the main highway connecting central Athens with the south and west of the country, is 30 minutes drive from the city. Today, Elefsina is best known for its gasoline refineries, which are the main thing passing drivers can see. But there’s more to the place: entering its center, one finds a quiet early-20th-century town, the name hinting at its very ancient origins: This is Eleusis, one of the most sacred places in the ancient world as well as one of Greece’s most important archaeological sites. Eleusis, along with Athens, Delos, Delphi, and Olympia was one of the five sacred Greek cities for nearly two thousand years (1600 BC-400 AD). It was the annual site of the Eleusinian Mysteries and also the birthplace of Aeschylus, the father of tragedy.
Eleusis has a lot to offer. The sanctuary of Demeter is a serene and beautiful oasis nestled into the shelter of an elongated limestone outcrop, crowned by a modern chapel, hidden away among the lanes of a modern town dominated by very forbidding industrial structures. Greek archaeologists mostly excavated the site throughout the twentieth century and discovered a variety of fascinating and well-preserved structures dating back more than two millennia. The sanctuary is surrounded by impressive fortification walls and towers, constructed in the 6th or 5th centuries BC but were repaired and enlarged several times until the 3rd century AD. Two arched gateways once accessed a large paved area outside them on the northeastern side. When the procession arrived from Athens, it paused to regroup before proceeding into the main sanctuary.
The entrance, built in the second century AD, was a scaled-down replica of the Great Propylaia of the Athenian Acropolis, which was already 600 years old. The visitor, both ancient and modern, continues into the sanctuary, passing a second (1st century BC) gate and a large granary. Grain would have been a practical necessity to feed and supply those attending the festival, but the cultivated grain is also inextricably linked with the myth of Demeter at Eleusis.
At the heart of the sanctuary are the ruins of an enormous structure known as the Telesterion, whose architecture stands in stark contrast to the temples. It was a massive pillared hall that had been enlarged and expanded at least four times throughout antiquity. The Telesterion was one of the world’s largest roofed spaces from the 5th century BC onwards (50 by 50m or 165 by 165ft in its final phase). The hall was surrounded by theatre-style steps along the inside of its walls, allowing many participants to observe whatever was going on there. Within it stood a smaller structure known as the Anaktoron (or palace), which maintained the same dimensions and location throughout the building’s changes and enlargements.
The temple of Demeter was the largest in Greece and could hold as many people as a theatre. Of course, this could have meant thousands of people. The building’s plan was designed by Ictinus, the architect of the Parthenon in Athens; however, it took many years to complete. The names of several architects who worked on the structure’s construction are preserved. The architect Philo only constructed its portico of twelve stately columns in the time of Demetrius Phalereus, around 318 BC.
When finished, it was regarded as one of the four finest examples of Greek architecture in marble. It was oriented southeast. The great temple was tragically destroyed in 396 AD by the Gothic invader Alaric I, and it vanished from history as a religious site at the time. During the Ottoman occupation of the country, European travellers described Eleusis as having few inhabitants but many ancient ruins.
The interior design of the building suggests that the rows of seats evolved like a rectangular cave around the nucleus of the ceremony, the Anaktoron, indicating that the rites were indeed open to all. “Anyone who wishes, from all Athens or elsewhere, may be initiated in the mysteries,” writes Herodotus (Histories 8.65). Torch-lit nocturnal rites justify the lantern/clerestory as an air shaft rather than a light aperture. Similarly, the numerous entrances provided adequate ventilation. A large number of seats implies that many people attended or participated in what was said, enacted, and revealed. Whatever the Mysteries entailed (apparitions, re-enactments, ritual performances), they were not a solitary, isolated issue.
The interior was meticulously designed to maximise the effect of the process. The ‘forest’ of columns, with their plasticity of volume set against the delicate transparency of shadows, added to the atmosphere and – along with the darkness and the fragrant burning incense – amplified the impact of the rite. Inside the Telesterion, people grew wiser, fulfilled, reinvigorated, and enlightened due to a spiritual and cognitive transition, an inner, esoteric process that was intense and formative.