Daphni Monastery

The fortified Monastery of Daphni stands at the edge of the Haidari pine forest, on the left side of the Sacred Way that has led from Athens to Eleusis since ancient times. It was probably built on the site of the ancient temple of Apollo Daphnaeus, Apollo of the Laurels.

The monastery is protected by a particularly imposing fortified enclosure. This square enceinte has towers and battlements, and two gates on the east and west sides. The monastery dates back to Byzantine times, but the only trace that remains of the original square fortress is the north wall. The four sides, each wall approximately 98 metres long and just over a metre wide, are reinforced on the inside by large piers supporting wide arches forming an arcade, a few of which still survive today. On top of the arches was a protected walkway running around the battlements. Three square towers reinforced the north wall along the Sacred Way. Another tower defended the west gate, still visible in ruins. There was yet another gate with an inner tower on the east side, below the post-Byzantine gate through which visitors enter the archaeological site today.

Within and parallel to the four sides of the enceinte but at a slight distance away from them are several ruined buildings, perhaps the original monks’ cells.

The interior of the fortress is dominated by the monastery church or catholicon, while just to the north are the ruins of the refectory. On the south side of the catholicon was a square courtyard with arcades, blocks of cells and auxiliary buildings, which, as excavations have shown, were restored or rebuilt many times over the thousand years of the Monastery’s existence.

The catholicon, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin, is dated to the 11th century. It is of the octagonal type adopted in the post-Byzantine period and favoured by many other famous monasteries, such as that of Hosios Loukas (St Luke) in Steiri, Boeotia, and Nea Moni of Chios. This church design may have been invented in Constantinople. Its main feature is the large dome supported on eight pillars arranged symmetrically around the sides of a square central space. Chapels are placed in the corners of the building.

The excellent craftsmanship of the church, with cloisonné masonry (of stone blocks framed by bricks), elaborate windows with arched brick frames, and luxurious interior decoration with splendid mosaics on the walls, marble revetments on the lower walls and marble ornaments of which only a few examples survive, links the construction of the church to elite groups from the imperial court.

The mosaics covering the upper walls are indicative of Orthodox dogma. They follow the standard iconographic programme of the Middle Byzantine period: Christ Pantokrator (Ruler Over All) at the centre of the dome, flanked by prophets; the Virgin Mary in the apse accompanied by angels; the Annunciation and the Birth, Baptism and Transfiguration of Christ in the four pendentives under the dome; scenes from the Life of Christ and the Virgin, saints and bishops. The figures, calm and perfectly proportioned, seem carved in relief, resembling Classical and Hellenistic sculptures. The saints’ expressions reveal nobility and high moral integrity, their individual features skilfully rendered. The Pantokrator on the dome, the largest scene of Daphni Monastery, dominates the main church with His severe yet gentle expression, to which photographs do not do justice.

Following the destruction of the marble revetments, the lower walls of the main church were covered with painted scenes, probably 17th century in date, which are preserved in places: the Deesis, the Sacrifice of Abraham, full-length saints, bishops and ornamental motifs.

The narthex (portico) on the west side is of the same date as the church. Shortly afterwards an exonarthex or outer porch was added, with an upper floor that also extended across the narthex and part of the main church. The upper floor was accessed via a spiral staircase in the northwest corner of the church. During the period of Frankish rule, the Duke of Athens, Otto de la Roche, ceded the Monastery to the Cistercians. Following its extensive destruction in an earthquake, they carried out extensive renovations and remodelled the exonarthex, which attained its present form, with Gothic arches on the front and crenellations on the upper floor.

After the Turkish conquest of Athens in 1458, the monastery complex was restored to the Orthodox monks, who added two-storey buildings in the small courtyard, consisting of cells, a refectory and storeroom surrounded by a gallery. In the late Turkish period, a chapel with the apse on the east was attached west of the exonarthex. The chapel was built by the Grocers’ Guild.

Following the Greek Revolution of 1821 – when it was occasionally used as a military headquarters – and the establishment of the Modern Greek State in 1830, the Monastery fell into disuse. It briefly served as a barracks for Bavarian troops (1838-1839) and housed the Public Mental Hospital (1883-1885). It then gradually became an archaeological site.

Consolidation and restoration work on the monastery complex and conservation of the mosaics began at the end of the 19th century and has continued at intervals to the present day, originally undertaken by the Archaeological Society and later by the Archaeological Service. Efforts for the complete restoration of the monument intensified after the destructive earthquake of 1999. Recently, with EU funding from the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF) 2007-2013, the restoration of the catholicon was completed by the Directorate for the Restoration of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Monuments, while the mosaics have been conserved by the Directorate for the Conservation of Ancient and Modern Monuments, and the first phase of restoration of the fortification walls has been implemented by the 1st Ephorate of Byzantine Monuments.

Since 1990, the monument has been included on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List together with the Monastery of Hosios Loukas in Steiri, Boeotia, and Nea Moni of Chios.

Kalliopi Florou, Archaeologist

Department of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Antiquities and Museums / Ephorate of Antiquities of West Attica