Kalymbaki is a large tract of land at the estuary of the Sarantapotamos river to the east of Eleusis. The sources of the river, which in antiquity was known as the Eleusinian Cephissus, are located in the Pateras and Pastra mountains. Sarantapotamos was notorious for the devastating floods it caused after heavy rainfall, and the ancient residents of the Thriasian Plain constructed embankments along its course to protect their properties. In modern times, the people of Eleusis created an extensive network of artificial canals (known as soudes) to irrigate their fields.
Since the flow of the river could increase substantially as a result of sustained rainfall (thus causing extensive flooding in the surrounding plain), Kalymbaki remained uninhabited and uncultivated. Only the northernmost parts (away from the sea) sustained a few vegetable gardens, but these were eventually replaced by homes and factories.
The word Kalymbaki is composite from the Greek word for “good” and the Arvanitic word for a place suitable for sheep and goats. Sarantapotamos slowed down at its mouth and formed a large and fertile delta plain. This area remained verdant throughout the year and animals found lush pastures even in high summer. The coastline and the river banks were covered in thick riparian vegetation that included willow trees, reeds and grass; an ideal habitat for seabirds, ducks and geese.
But people also took advantage of this bounty: stock-farmers brought their animals here, while others gathered reeds to make baskets and chairs.
The evil lamia
Kalymbaki also supplied the materials for bricks and roof tiles. Five kilns took advantage of the clay deposited by the river on its banks, while other industries used the sand from the beach by the river’s mouth. These industrial activities left behind a landscape full of grooves where water pooled. This bog was fertile ground for mosquitoes. Kalymbaki was a double-edged sword for pre-war Eleusis. Swarms of mosquitoes spread malaria to the town’s residents, leaving them vulnerable to tuberculosis as a result of their weakened immune system. Local folklore turned Kalymbaki into the home to a terrible and vindictive lamia (a female monster) with teeth a meter long and an insatiable appetite for human blood.
Paradoxically, environmental degradation in the 1950s had an unexpectedly positive effect. Most industries in Eleusis used various types of coal as fuel and released a potent mixture of poisonous gases, smoke and ash. These pollutants caused serious health problems, especially among people with respiratory and circulatory issues. Coal combustion also generated copious amounts of residues, which were dumped in Kalymbaki, thus inadvertently filling the grooves and raising the ground. Sarantapotamos could no longer flood its banks and the riparian wetland disappeared. But so did the mosquitoes!
Lack of care
It was much more difficult to alleviate flood risk. Soudes offered some protection by reducing the water’s rate of flow. By the end of the 19th century, however, soudes gradually fell into disuse. As houses, factories, and military installations replaced farmland around the city during the years of the Metaxas dictatorship, there was no longer any need to maintain the old irrigation canals. The river was left to its fate; as a result, plant growth choked the river channel and reduced flow conveyance. Suddenly the areas downstream were left exposed to a series of devastating floods.
A great flood occured in 1914 but since there were no houses or cultivated fields in Kalymbaki, there were no reports of catastrophic damages. Even the animals grazing there seem to have escaped unscathed. The community of Eleusis contributed a small amount to the erection of a levee (known as the “knot”) in the hope that it would keep the river further to the east and away from the town. The locals rested on their laurels in the firm belief that they had finally “bound” Sarantapotamos.
In January 1928 the river swelled and swept away not only stables but also roads and bridges and rural dwellings. The authorities set aside some money to repair the damage but suddenly, in August of that year, the river crested again after torrential rains. This time no knot could avert disaster. Floodwaters raced down Iera Odos street and swamped the town. People sought safety on the hill in the archaeological site and witnessed the transformation of their town into a vast lake. The houses reflected in the muddy waters, while the beach was covered in driftwood, plows, saddles and pieces of furniture carried away by Sarantapotamos.
The great flood
There seemed to be no end to the danger posed by the river. Sarantapotamos burst its banks over and over again, while any efforts at flood control were limited and ineffective. When wildfires destroyed the forests on the surrounding mountains, the river picked up even more water and flowed with greater force. On 27 January 1978, a new disastrous flood caused devastation in the surrounding countryside. The airbase was completely inundated, as was the nearby neighbourhood established by the Pontic Greeks. The residents were forced to seek safety in boats. The “Halyvourgiki” steel factory was nearly destroyed by repeated short circuits. Kalymbaki was indistinguishable from the adjacent sea and the Athens-Corinth National Highway was cut off after muddy waters flooded the road. It took almost twenty years for the completion of effective flood control measures that hopefully solved Eleusis’ problem once and for all.