The Byzantine Daphni Monastery, located 11 km from the center of Athens, is a UNESCO World Heritage site that was initially constructed in the 6th century. The Daphni Monastery showcases exceptional and impressive mosaics set against a gold background, boasting outstanding artistic characteristics.
The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens is situated at the base of the forested hill of Aigaleo Mountain, adjacent to the Sacred Road (Iera Odos), one of Greece’s oldest and most heavily trafficked routes. Iera Odos commences at the Kerameikos archaeological site in central Athens.
The Monastery also showcases the architectural excellence of the middle period of Byzantine religious architecture, specifically from the 11th and 12th centuries.
The strategic location of Daphni Monastery along Iera Odos has served as an intermediary stop for various armies over the centuries. For the past 300 years, numerous philhellenic travelers have made it a customary stop on their journey to the sacred city of Eleusis and the Peloponnese
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The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens
Brief History of the Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens
- It was originally constructed during the early Christian centuries, most likely in the 6th century AD.
- In 1080 AD, an unknown individual 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 caused significant destruction to the Monastery. Subsequently, it was handed over to French monks who reconstructed the exonarthex and added an enclosure around the Monastery. They remained there until 1456 when Athens was conquered by the Ottomans, who expelled the French.
- In 1458, the monastic complex was once again entrusted to Orthodox monks who constructed two-story buildings with cells, a dining room, storerooms, and a perimeter gallery within the small enclosure.
- In 1821, during the Greek War of Independence, it was sporadically used as a garrison until it was designated as an archaeological site at the end of the 19th century.
The Monastery’s Architecture
The Byzantine Daphni Monastery in Athens is believed to have been constructed on the site of the ancient temple of Apollo Daphnaeus, named after the Greek god Apollo. The word ‘Daphni’ in Greek means ‘laurel.’ The ancient temple was entirely demolished by the Goths, who invaded Athens in 398 CE. Today, a solitary Ionic column from the Apollo Temple still stands, serving as a support for the exonarthex of the monastery.
Edward Clarke and Elgin removed three other remaining columns in 1801 and transported them to England where they remain (along with so many other Greek antiquities).
What is truly unique about Daphni Monastery is its imposing fortified enclosure wall, standing nearly 20 feet high, complete with towers, battlements, and two entry gates. Today, the smaller gate serves as the main entrance to the monument. The interior of the Monastery is primarily defined by the Catholicon, the main and most prominent temple.
The Catholicon of Daphni Monastery has been renowned as one of the most beautiful domed churches in Greece. This splendid structure, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, dates back to the 11th century. It boasts a large dome supported by eight pillars symmetrically arranged, with chapels positioned in the corners of the building.
The smooth surfaces of its walls bear witness to the exceptional craftsmanship of the Greek Byzantine school, while the ornate brickwork surrounding the windows will capture your attention.
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.
In the mosaics in the Daphni Monastery in Athens, we see innovations and new iconographic styles.
You may notice that within the Catholicon, there’s a notable reduction in the depiction of individual saints compared to other Greek Orthodox monasteries and churches, with a notable absence of monks and holy women. At Daphni Monastery, there’s a distinct emphasis on the human aspect of depicted saints, enriched by scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.
The Monastery’s Yard
The main courtyard of the Monastery also contains the cells for the monks, which are now used as offices, as well as a small museum displaying exhibits from the site.
All around the yard, there are also the remains of many wells and various buildings in different states of conservation.
Another project undertaken by the monks was the conversion of the underground area beneath 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.
You can reach the Monastery from the center of Athens using public transport. Take the Metro (M3 line) and disembark at Agia Marina Station. Once you arrive at Agia Marina Station, simply walk approximately 40 meters to the nearby bus station, where you can catch any of the following buses: 866, 876, or 811. After an 11-stop trip, alight at Daphni Hospital, and you’ll find the Monastery across the road.
Alternative ways are taxis or renting a car which will allow you to visit the Temple of Aphrodite a few hundred meters down the Iera Odos and Eleysis.
UNESCO Monuments in Greece
There are currently 19 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 Thessaloniki, Mount Athos, and Zagori in Epirus
- Peloponnese (5): Mystras, Olympia, Apollo Epicurius at Bassae, Mycenae and Tiryns, Sanctuary of Asklepios in Epidaurus
- 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
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