The Daphni Monastery (Μωνη Δαφνιου; also spelled Dafni Monastery) is an 11th-century Byzantine monastery outside Athens. Founded on the site of a Greek temple, it is now a museum and World Heritage Site. Daphni Monastery is one of the great masterpieces of the Byzantine Empire, especially famed for its beautiful interior mosaics. Sadly, the church has been closed for restoration work since 1999 with no estimated date of completion.
History of Daphni Monastery
Located between Athens and Eleusis, this site has been sacred since ancient times. It originally hosted a Temple of Apollo, from which the name Daphni (daphne is Greek for "laurel") gets its name. The temple was destroyed around 395 after paganism was outlawed by the Christian emperor; one surviving column of the temple can be seen near the entrance of the monastery.
In the 6th century, a small Christian monastery was built here, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was abandoned during the Slav invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries, then rebuilt on a much grander scale around 1080, when the Byzantine Empire was at its peak. This is the church that survives today, although most of the monastic buildings have been lost.
The monastery repeatedly suffered from invaders and earthquakes since its construction. After being sacked by Frankish crusaders in 1205, it was given to the Cistercians (a western Catholic order) in 1211. The Cistercian monks, who came from the Abbey of Bellevaux in France, added the cloister and twin arches of the facade in their own Gothic style.
Daphni Monastery was a Cistercian monastery for almost 250 years. Two Frankish dukes of Athens, Otho de la Roche and Walter de Brienne, were buried in its church.
After the Ottoman Turks took Athens in 1458, they returned Daphni to Greek Orthodox monks. But Daphni was not a functioning monastery during the Turkish occupation; for a time it was used as an army barracks.
The monastery was again occupied by Greek Orthodox monks from the 16th century until the War of Independence, when it was officially deconsecrated (1821). The church was again used as a barracks, and later as a lunatic asylum (1883-85).
Severe damage was caused by earthquakes in 1889 and 1897, after which restorations were carried out by the Greek Archaeological Society: the mosaics were cleaned by Italian artisans and the west side of the narthex and the dome were entirely rebuilt. The structure was reinforced in 1920.
In 1955-57, a more extensive restoration project was undertaken by the Restorations Department of the Ministry of Culture. The church was restored, the cloister was repaired, and the mosaics were cleaned again. In 1960, the walls filling the arches in the western wall of the exonarthex were removed and in 1968 the west entrance to the monastery was cleared.
After another damaging earthquake in 1999, the monastery was closed for restorations. Unfortunately, it has not opened since. At the time of writing (June 2009), there is no estimated date of completion.
What to See at Daphni Monastery
The plan of Daphni's church is a "cross-in-square" plan, common in middle Byzantine times. The walls are strongly built for defensive purposes due to the monastery's vulnerable location outside the city. The central square becomes a rectangle by the extension of a narthex and exonarthex on the west end.
The church is now entered from the south, through the restored cloisters. These were built by the Cistercians in the 13th century, with cells added in the 16th century. Displayed here are Classical and Byzantine sculptural fragments and two sarcophagi decorated with fleur-de-lys and Latin crosses, which may be the tombs of the 13th-century Frankish dukes known to be buried here.
The interior mosaics are fragmentary but constitute the largest and finest collection in southern Greece. Dating from the late 11th century, they depict biblical scenes, saints and prophets against glimmering gold backgrounds.
The large central dome bears an exceptionally stern Christ Pantocrator. As traditional in Greek Orthodox churches, the Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism, and Transfiguration adorn the squinches supporting the dome, and the 16 major prophets are displayed between the windows of the dome.
The east apse has a fragmentary mosaic of the Virgin Mary, patron of the church, flanked by well-preserved Archangels.
The most complete mosaics are in the southern end of the narthex, depicting the Presentation of the Virgin and the Prayer of Joachim and Anne. The vault just inside the southern entrance depicts the Adoration of the Magi and the Resurrection; the northern vault depicts the Triumphal Entry, the Crucifixion and the Nativity of the Virgin.
In addition to the mosaics, four of the frescoes that adorned the lower walls of the church can still be made out.
Although Delphi is only 9km (5.5mi) west of Athens, it can be quite a hassle to get there independently. A taxi or rental car can take up to an hour on an ugly route and the bus ride involves several changes. The best option is to take the Metro to the Daphni station, then continue to the monastery by bus or taxi, ideally visiting on the way to Eleusis or the Pelonponnese. Most guided tours of the area stop at Daphni.
Quick Facts on Daphni Monastery
|Names:||Dafni Monastery · Daphni Monastery|
|Categories:||churches; monasteries; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||38.012942° N, 23.635953° E|
|Address:||Odos Athinon, Χαιδαριον 12462, Greece|
|Hours:||Open daily during continuing restoration work (as of July 2010).|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Daphni Monastery|
- Blue Guide Greece: The Mainland, 7th ed. (W.W. Norton, 2006), 143-45.
- John S. Bowman, Frommer's Greece, 5th edition (November 2005).
- Monastery of Daphni - Hellenic Ministry of Culture
- "The Monasteries of Daphni, Hosios Lukas and Nea Moni." UNESCO Advisory Body Evaluation (PDF, 989).
- Traveler Reviews of the Daphni Monastery - TripAdvisor
- Photos of Daphni Monastery - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Daphni Monastery, Greece
Below is a location map and aerial view of Daphni Monastery. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.