A Visit to UNESCO Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens

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Dafni Monastery an UNESCO listed site Athens Greece
Daphni Monastery from Aigaleo Mt

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery, 11 km from Athens center, is a UNESCO world heritage site, that was first built in the 6th century. The Daphni Monastery features unique and impressive mosaics on a gold background, with outstanding artistic characteristics.

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, the Catholicon
The Catholicon of Daphni Monastery in Athens

The Monastery also exhibits the architectural perfection of the middle period of Byzantine religious architecture (11th and 12th centuries).

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens is located at the beginning of the forested hill of Aigaleo Mt bordering the Sacred Way (Iera Odos), one of the busiest national roads in Greece.

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, mosaic
Mosaic Christ’s Birth – Photo Antonios Pospelov
The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, Pantikrator fresco
Ceiling Fresco of Jesus Pantokrator

This strategic location of the Daphni Monastery at Iera Odos served as an intermediate station for all kinds of armies during the centuries. Over the last 300 years, many philhellenic travelers would always stop on their way to the sacred City of Eleusis and the Peloponnese.

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The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, aerila view
Aerial view of the Daphni Monastery Dome

Brief History of the Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens

  • It was originally built sometime during the first paleochristianic centuries, probably in the 6th century AD
  • In 1080 AD, an unknown person cleared the ruins of the old Basilica Church and renovated the Monastery. The mosaics of the monastery belong to the Komnenoi Dynasty
  • In 1205 the Crusades destroyed the Monastery significantly. Later on, it was donated to French monks who rebuilt the exonarthex and added an enclosure around the monastery. They remained until 1456 when Athens was conquered by the Ottomans who expelled the French
  • In 1458, the monastic complex was again given to the Orthodox monks who built in the small enclosure two-story buildings with cells and a dining room, storerooms, and a perimeter gallery
  • In 1821, during the Greek War of Independence was occasionally used as a garrison until it became an archaeological site at the end of the 19th century

The Monastery’s Architecture

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, the Catholicon, and the monks cells

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens was probably built on the site of the ancient temple of Apollo Daphnaeus (Daphni in Greek means laurel), an ancient Greek god. The ancient temple was completely destroyed by the Goths who invaded Athens in 398 AD. There is a single Ionic column from the Apollo Temple, still standing and supporting the exonarthex of the monastery.

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, ancient column
The remaining Ancient Ionic Column

Edward Clarke and Elgin removed 3 other remaining columns in 1801 and transported them to England where they still remain (along with so many other Greek antiquities).

What is quite unique about Daphni Monastery is the imposing fortified enclosure wall, almost 20 feet high reinforced with towers, battlements, and two entry gates. The smaller one is used today as the main entrance to the monument.

The interior of the Monastery is dominated by the Catholicon, the main large Temple.

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, entrance to the Catholicon
Entrance to the Daphni Catholicon

The Catholicon of Daphni Monastery has been described as one of the most beautiful domed churches in Greece. The Catholicon, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, is dated to the 11th century. It features a large dome supported on eight pillars arranged symmetrically and in the corners of the building there are placed Chapels.

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, walls in the monastery
The Daphni Monastery Walls

The calm surfaces of its walls attest that it was built by great craftsmen of the Greek Byzantine school and the wealth of decorative brickwork surrounding the windows attracts the attention of the visitor. The exquisite Byzantine architecture is in full harmony with the highly-artistic frescoes on the walls of the Catholicon.

Daphni Monastery’s Frescoes and Mosaics

The main mosaic in the center of the Dome is Christ Pantokrator (Ruler Over All), one of the most beautiful scenes depicted in the Greek Orthodox religion, flanked by 16 prophets of the Old Testament.

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, Pantokrator mosaic
Pantokrator Mosaic – Photo Antonios Pospelov

In the mosaics in the Daphni Monastery in Athens, we see the innovations and new iconographic styles.

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, wall mosaics
Mosaics and frescoes of the Monastery
The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, details of mosaic
Details of the mosaic – Photo Antonios Pospelov
The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, frescoes

In the Catholicon, we see a reduction in the depiction of individual saints which are often found in other Greek Orthodox Monasteries and churches, while monks and holy women are absent. In the Daphni Monastery, there is an emphasis on the human part of depicted saints which is enriched with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.

The Monastery’s Yard

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery, western monk yards
Western Monk Cells

The Monastery’s main yard also houses the western and easter monks’ cells, that today are used as offices and a small museum with exhibits from the site.

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery, eastern cell monks
Eastern Monk Cells and Museum
The Byzantine Daphni Monastery , exhibition museum Daphni
A temporary exhibition at Monastery’s Museum

All around the yard, there are also the remains of many wells and various buildings in different states of conservation.

The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens, Crypt Dukes
Crypt of the Dukes

Another intervention of the monks was the conversion of the underground area under the narthex into a Crypt for the burial of the Dukes of the Duchy of Athens.

How to Get to the Monastery of Daphni

You can visit the Daphni Monastery on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 08:00 – 15:00 with free entrance.

A kitty monk!

You can get there by public transport from Athens center using the Metro (M3 line) and getting off at Agia Marina Station (see at resources the Metro Map below). From there, if you walk for 40 meters to the bus station you can take any of the following buses: 866 or 876 or 811. 11 stops later (at Daphni Hospital) you get off and the Monastery is on the other side of the road.

Alternative ways are taxis or guides tours like Ancient Corinth and Daphni Monastery tour from Get your Guide or Byzantine monasteries tour around Athens by Viator

UNESCO Monuments in Greece

Spend a week on Rhodes island,Knights' Street,
Medieval Town of Rhodes

There are currently 18 UNESCO Monuments in Greece:

Athens, Attika (1): Acropolis Hill

Monasteries (3): Daphni in Athens, Nea Moni in Chios, Hosios Loukas in Fokida

Northern Greece (4): Vergina, Philippi, Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessalonika, Mount Athos

Peloponnese (5): Mystras, Olympia, Apollo Epicurius at Bassae, Mycenae and Tiryns, Sanctuary of Asklepios in Epidauros

Islands (5): Delos, Medieval City of Rhodes, Old Town of Corfu, Pythagoreion and Heraion of Samos, the Historic Centre (Chorá), the Monastery of Saint-John the Theologian, and the Cave of the Apocalypse on Patmos

Central Greece (2): Delphi, Meteora Monasteries

Where Best to Stay to Visit Daphni Monastery

If this is your first visit to Greece and Athens in particular, then the best place to stay is in Plaka, Athens’ old town near Acropolis. In any case, you can choose between Plaka or a beach hotel or a budget from the updated list that I have made especially for the newcomers to Athens:

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