Iera Odos – Following the sacred road of Ancient Athens

Iera Odos (Sacred Road / Ιερά Οδός in Greek) was in ancient times the road that connected the city of Athens with Eleusis / Elefsina (Ελευσίς / Ελευσίνα), where once a year the famous (but still unexplained about their exact character) Eleusinian Mysteries (Ελευσίνια Μυστήρια) were performed. Iera Odos was 22 km long, starting from Kerameikos (Κεραμεικός) and for the most part it followed the course of today’s Iera Odos ending at the Sanctuary of Demeter in Eleusis. Based on historical data, it is considered that the inhabitants of Athens crossed this course for the first time during the Late Helladic period (1600-1100 BC) in order to approach the settlement of Eleusis. Later, when the worship of the goddess Demeter began in the area of Eleusis (during the 11th century BC) and after the Eleusinian Mysteries were officially established (in the 8th century BC), the ancient Iera Odos played an important role with the procession of Athenian pilgrims following this path on their route to the Sanctuary. Eleusinian Mysteries were initations held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone. They are the most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece. Their basis was an old agrarian cult and represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the king of the underworld Hades, in a cycle with three phases: the descent, the search and the ascent, with the main theme being the ascent of Persephone and the reunion with her mother. Those who took part in the Mysteries were called mystes (mystics / μύστες in Greek) and were selected by very strict procedures. Mystes were accepted into the Mysteries at least one year after their initial initiation and had to take an oath of secrecy. The ceremonies of the first stage of initiation included the sacrifice of a pig and the purification by a priest. Mystes also received some teaching, which later allowed them to understand the Mysteries. [Visit this link for more information about Eleusinian Mysteries].

In this article we follow the route of the modern Iera Odos (and then Athinon – Korinthou National Road) until Eleufis and try to locate all the visible and easily accessible monuments that have survived. The modern Iera Odos follows the route of the ancient, and until 1956 was the only access from the city to the rest of the country. The construction of Athens Avenue and Athinon – Korinthou National Road has interrupted the route of Iera Odos after the area of Daphni. The ancient road came across many sanctuaries, burial grounds, bridges, lakes and rivers that played an important role in the procession of the pilgrims, while many of the monuments had a strong symbolical character.

The beginning of Iera Odos inside Kerameikos cemetery

Our tour begins inside the important archaeological site of Kerameikos, the cemetery of Ancient Athens. That was the location of Iera Pyli (Sacred Gate / Ιερά Πύλη in Greek) which marked the beginning of Iera Odos. Next to Iera Pyli was the location of Dipylo (Δίπυλο), which was the main entrance of the city. All the Athenian participants to Eleusinian Mysteries were gathered outside these gates before the beginning of the procession. [Visit this link for more information about Kerameikos].

Extension of Kerameikos at the junction of Pireos Street with the modern Iera Odos

A few metres from Kerameikos at the junction of Pireos Street with the modern Iera Odos, about 150 tombs dating from the Archaic years to the 1st century AD have been excavated. Apart from the tombs, a burial monument of the 4th century BC has been located at the site. Essentially the site was an extension of the Kerameikos cemetery along Iera Odos.

Location of Plato’s Olive Tree

We follow Iera Odos and at number 96 we find the location of Plato’s Olive Tree (Ελιά του Πλάτωνα), which actually marks the boundaries of Elaionas (Ελαιώνας), the sacred forest of Ancient Athens. Elaionas was probably created in the 6th century BC, when Solon enacted laws on the protection and cultivation of the olive tree. Τhe oldest surviving olive tree, dating from the time of Pericles and named after the philosopher Plato was located at this point until the 1970s, when it was destroyed in a car accident. Another olive tree was planted in its place and the trunk of the ancient olive tree was transported and preserved to this day in a special place at the nearby Agricultural University.

Well of Prophet Daniel

After a few hundred metres, on the left side of the road and before Eleonas Station, there is a shed protecting ancient buildings brought to light by the metro line extension works. The place has been named the Well of Prophet Daniel (Φρέαρ του Προφήτη Δανιήλ) and is a part of the ancient Iera Odos with its retaining wall, whose construction phases date from the Geometric years to the late Roman years. Also the discovery at the location of objects related to the worship of Demeter has led archaeologists to believe that the place was a depository of the Sanctuary of Demeter, Athina and Poseidon that existed in the area and was a stop of the pilgrims on their return from Eleusis and before entering Athens.

Chapel of Agios Savvas Agiasmenos

Almost opposite the Well of Prophet Daniel, we find the Christian chapel of Agios Savvas Agiasmenos (Άγιος Σάββας Αγιασμένος). According to tradition, the church was built in the 9th century AD by the Byzantine empress Theodosia, on an ancient temple, probably the Sanctuary of Demeter, Athina and Poseidon, we have already mentioned. Various ancient elements have been used for the construction of the chapel and could be seen built in its walls. The chapel is also the only surviving building of the homonymous district of Agios Savvas that was destroyed in 1934 by the floods of the neighbouring River Kifisos.

Bridge of Kifisos River at Elaionas Station

Continuing our route on Iera Odos, at the location of Elaionas Station, we encounter an excavation that is of particular interest due to the discovery of three impressive stone piers of the Bridge of Ancient River Kifisos (Αρχαία Γέφυρα Κηφισού), probably of the 4th century BC, along with parts of one of its arches. Testimonies for the use of the bridge are preserved in ancient texts. Specifically on the bridge during the procession, the so-called gefyrismoi (γεφυρισμοί) took place. During gefyrismoi non-participating Athenians gathered near the bridge of Kifisos and waited for the return of the pilgrims. As soon as they saw them, they started cursing vulgarly and gesturing indecently and, in general, doing everything they could to expel those returning from Eleusis. The latter again, who usually turned on carriages and had done their duty to the goddess Demeter, responded with similar insults and gestures.

Chapel of Agios Georgios Diasoritis

Our next stop is in Egaleo, at the junction of Iera Odos with Proussis Street. This is where the chapel of Agios Georgios Diasoritis (Άγιος Γεώργιος Διασορίτης) is located. The church was probably built in the 16th century AD on the site of the Αncient Τemple of Kyamitιs (Κυαμίτης), although the ancient building materials are no longer visible. Kiamitis is a well-known hero of the ancient Athenians. According to tradition, Kyamitis is the one who first sowed kyamos (broad beans / κουκιά in Greek), as the etymology of his name suggests. Αccording to Pausanias the participants to the Mysteries were not allowed to consume kyamos, probably because those were the only seeds that were not offered by the goddess Demeter to humans.

Iera Odos at Egaleo Station

After 1 km from the Chapel, the works for the creation of the metro station of Egaleo revealed the best preserved part of the ancient sacred road. At this point we see a section of the ancient Iera Odos that is framed by retaining walls and a cemetery.

Pedestal of a burial monument near Dromokaitio

A few kilometres from the centre of Egaleo, opposite the entrance of Dromokaitio Psychiatric Hospital, and inside the perimeter of an apartment building, we see the remains of two burial enclosures as well as a pedestal of a burial monument. From the pottery found in the tombs, the cemetery is dated to the end of the 4th century BC.

Byzantine Monastery of Daphni

Our next stop is the Byzantine Monastery of Daphni (Βυζαντινή Μονή Δαφνίου) located in Chaidari, on Athens Avenue (downstream to Athens), which is built on the site of the Sanctuary of Apollo Daphniforos (Απόλλωνας Δαφνηφόρος). Its impressive architecture and the special mosaic decoration of the church of the monastery, make it one of the most exceptional monuments of Byzantine art. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990. The sanctuary of Apollo was one of the most important stops of the Eleusinian procession. Inside the Sanctuary there were statues of Demeter and Persephone, while the importance of the Sanctuary is confirmed by the fact that in the ancient theater of Dionysus in Athens there is an honorary throne for the priest of Apollo Daphniforos. The temple was of Ionic style and some of its columns were used in the construction of the Byzantine monastery. Today only one columhn has survived, while the rest were transported to London by Lord Elgin. The nickname of Apollo Daphniforos has been preserved in the current name of the area of ​​Daphni.

Sanctuary of Aphrodite

Another important sanctuary we encounter on our way to Eleusis is located on the right side of Athinon – Korinthou National Road as we approach Skaramangas. It is the Sanctuary of Aphrodite (Ιερό Αφροδίτης). The Sanctuary consists of multiple quadrangular niches that were carved on the rock of the hill on which the ancient temple was built. The purpose of the four-sided recesses was to place votive offerings (tamata / τάματα in Greek) by the pilgrims. Due to the recesses, the area was named by the modern inhabitants “ntoulapakia / ντουλαπάκια” (which means lockers) or “parathyrakia / παραθυράκια” (which means small windows). The main temple in front of the rock was a small square nave with pronaos. It was probably in Doric rhythm and had a marble housing. This open-air place of worship was one of the stops of the pilgrims who participated in the procession. In the documentary Mourning Rock (Αγέλαστος Πέτρα) by Filippos Koutsaftis in 2000, it is documented that until today, young girls from the neighbouring area came here to place offerings in the recesses and wish for a good husband (to our great surprise during our visit to the Sanctuary, we found real modern offerings in the recesses of the rock).

Modern votive offerings at the Sanctuary of Aphrodite

The Sanctuary of Aphrodite has also been featured in our article “Revealing more secrets sights in Athenian suburbs”.

Preserved part of Iera Odos at the exit to Piraeus

Immediately after the sanctuary of Aphrodite and at the exit of the Νational Road to Piraeus, a large and well-preserved part of Iera Odos has been revealed. According to the archaeologists, the width of the ancient road in the area was on average 5 metres.

The next location we meet on the National Road, at the height of the refineries of Aspropygros, is Lake Koumoundourou (Λίμνη Κουμουνδούρου). It is the only one that has survived from the two artificial Ancient Lakes of Reiti (Ρειτοί). The Lakes were formed in antiquity, probably in the Classical period, when the opening of Iera Odos blocked the passage of water from the adjacent ancient spring called Reita (Ρειτά) to the sea. According to the beliefs of the ancient inhabitants of Eleusis, the water of the Lake was subterranean and came from Evoikos Gulf. Thus it was considered a sacred lake dedicated to the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Only the priests of Eleusis had the right to fish in the Lake (the Lake today is in a military zone and the view of the lake from the National Road is obstructed by dense vegetation).

Ancient Bridge of Eleusinian Kifisos

Approaching the modern city of Elefsina the next point of interest we come across is the Ancient Bridge of Eleusinian Kifisos (Αρχαία Γέφυρα Ελευσινιακού Κηφισού). The river in recent years has been known as Sarantaporos. At this location during the Classical years there must have been another wooden or stone bridge that facilitated the crossing of the river by the pilgrims. The Βridge we see today is the work of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who was initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries in 124 AD, and during his stay in Greece ordered the construction of the Bridge.

The entrance to the Sanctuary of Eleusis

One kilometre after the Bridge we arrive at the entrance of the Sanctuary of Eleusis (Ιερό Ελευσίνας). It was one of the most important worship centres of the ancient world, where from the Mycenaean Age to the end of the 4th century AD, the goddess Demeter was constantly worshiped. At the entrance of the archeological site there is still the paved courtyard at which Iera Odos ended. Also we see the temple of Artemis Propylaea (Προπυλαία Αρτέμις), the Eschara (Εσχάρα), a Roman fountain and two triumphal arches. Then, we enter the Sanctuary of Demeter from the Great Propylaea (Μεγάλα Προπύλαια), next to which is the Kallichoro Well (Καλλίχορο Φρέαρ) – the well that Demeter is said to have sat while wandering in search of her daughter. After the Well, we meet the Small Propylaea (Mικρά Προπύλαια), next to which there is the Plutonio (Πλουτώνιο) and finally we reach the Telesterio (Τελεστήριο), the main temple of the goddess. [Visit this link for more information about the arhaeological site of Eleusis]

Iera Odos, the sacred road of the ancient Athenians, was part of the ordeal the pilgrims had to endure on their way to Eleusis. The modern route cannot immitate or capture the ambience of the sacred road, but following its route is like taking a tour of the history of Athens. Ancient burial grounds, temples that has been converted into Christian churches, a sanctuary that still receives offerings, ancient bridges, sacred lakes, and all these alongside the modern city. Following the route of Iera Odos is an unshakable proof of the continuous habitation and importance of the city of Athens.

[Photo at the top : A plaque that defines the boundaries of the Iera Odos – Archaeological Museum of Kerameikos. Photo by Marsyas]