In the beginning was the hill. And the hill rose amidst the ruins of the ancient sanctuary of Demeter. And there was marble and statues lying around, some of it exposed to the elements and some unseen and forgotten. The War of Independence had only recently ended with the liberation of Greece from the Ottomans (1832), but Eleusis was little more than the site of a revolutionary camp. Some foreign visitors had left their mark here, mostly by removing the statue of a Caryatid that flanked the Lesser Propylaea. The locals preferred the relative security of Koundoura, a village at a safe distance from the sea. Only a few huts stood among the demolished walls and the humble foundations of the sanctuary. Farmers used ancient pieces of marble to delimit the boundaries of their fields.
Modernity arrived slowly and hesitatingly. The first public projects to affect Eleusis was the construction of roads to connect Athens to Megara and Thebes (1839). A custom house and a quarantine station in the 1840s supported a moderate growth in maritime trade. In the 1860s, Eleusis attracted the attention of foreign archaeologists but their research was limited by the presence of houses and stores built directly on top of the ancient sanctuary. Workers arrived in small numbers to seek employment alongside the archaeologists, but it was only in 1882 that the Archaeological Society at Athens was able to expropriate the land and proceed with large-scale excavations.
Switzerland in Eleusis
While the archaeologists revealed the marble past of Eleusis, a group of industrialists envisioned the town’s bright future. Most of them were graduates of the Zurich Polytechnikum (known today as the ETH Zurich) and were attracted to the low cost of land and the town’s proximity to Athens. The port of Eleusis would enable them to export goods with relative ease, while the growth of the road and railway network would soon connect their factories to major national and international markets.
The gifts of the earth
Equally important was the abundant supply of raw materials from the countryside of Eleusis. The Thriacian Plain olive groves provided cheap oil to the nascent soap industry, while the region’s mineral wealth and good-quality limestone could support cement factories. The rapid growth of currant production in the late 19th century, and the precipitous drop in demand from European markets, enabled wineries and distilleries to secure their raw material for the production of spirits and other alcoholic drinks at a very competitive price.
The earliest enterprises were very small in size and scope of operations, focusing mainly on processing local agricultural products. In 1875 Lysander and Emmanuel Charilaou, two brothers from Galatz in Romania, opened a soap factory on a piece of land between the sea and the hill of the archaeological site. Initially the company employed approximately 20 workers and soon produced more than 640 tonnes of soap. More than a quarter of this amount was exported to other Mediterranean countries.
A toast to success
In 1898, Epameinondas Charilaos (who was first employed as a chemist in the Charilaou soap factory) collaborated with Leondios Oikonomides to open a winery and distillery. The company soon became known as “Votrys” and produced wine, brandy, vermouth, and rubbing alcohol. It eventually grew to become one of the most important distilleries in Greece, with factories in Eleusis, Athens, Piraeus, Kalamata, Pyrgos, Patras, and Thessaloniki.
Cement is king
The arrival of industry in Eleusis affected the town’s ancient past. The first Greek cement plant was founded here in 1902. The site selected for its construction was next to the hill of the sanctuary of Demeter. At the time cement was an innovative product, practically unknown in Greece, so the factory (that eventually became known as the “Titan”) was somewhat ahead of its time. In fact, one of owners decided to demonstrate the versatility and applicability of cement through a series of projects he paid for himself. Unfortunately, the authorities allowed the factory owners to use the hill as a quarry, thus causing significant damage to the sanctuary and various medieval monuments. The struggle between marble and cement was just beginning.