The visitor to Athens must see the monastery of Daphni because it combines in a very special way the ancient myths, the Classical period and the Byzantine history of the city. The monastery is considered to be the most important Byzantine monument in the vicinity of Athens and its mosaics are thought to be masterpieces of the golden era of Byzantine art.
Built on hallowed ground. In the 2nd century AD the traveller Pausanias refers to the temple of Daphnios or Daphnaeos Apollo, which stood by the ancient Sacred Road that led from Athens to Eleusis. The Goths demolished that temple in AD 395. When the Byzantine Emperors forbade the ancient pagan religion, the Christians occupied the site and built a church using the old temples material. They chose this particular site because it stood on the route to Eleusis, where the believers in idols continued to go to celebrate the Eleusinian Mysteries. In AD 1100 a new church was built in the shape of an octagon. Up until the 19th century the monastery underwent several alterations. During the 1821 Greek Revolution it became a shelter for the Greek fighters.
The monastery is situated on the site where in ancient times stood the temple of Daphnaeos or Daphnios Apollo with a sacred laurel grove. According to one version the place owes its name to this ancient temple and its laurel grove (daphne: laurel). Another version claims that Daphni was named after the ancient Queen Daphne, whose ship was wrecked near the bay of Eleusis. Queen Daphne was saved and expressed her gratitude to Apollo by building this temle, which was destroyed by the Goths in AD 395. Yet another myth says that this was the place where the nymph Daphne, fleeing the unwelcome attentions of the god Apollo, had turned herself into a laurel tree.
Daphni owes part of its fame to its unique and beautiful mosaics, which were made in the 11th century AD. You can see them on the walls, the dome, the arms of the cross on the roof and in the sanctuary. Seventy six of the themes of the mosaics refer to the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. You will also see mosaics of figures of saints and prophets.
The central figure of the dome is Christ Pantocrator, inside a circle that symbolises the sky. The gold background symbolises Heaven. His face is severe as he watches the humans on earth and judges their acts. He is surrounded by Old Testament prophets.
This mosaic stands half damaged on the western wall of the church. Notice especially the angel that comes down from the sky to receive the Virgins soul. He is thoughtful and his hands are piously covered by a cloth.
Unfortunately Daphni Monastery is temporarily closed.
|THE MONASTERY AT KAISARIANI|
A visit to this delightful spot may take an hour or a day. Whatever the duration, it's a pleasure and interesting on many counts, the scenery, architecture and historically. Byzantine intrigues dominating the machinations of the monks for hundreds of years. The monastery was founded in the 11th century A.D. and consecrated to the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple.
The Kaisariani church with its chapel of St. Anthony in its centre, is actually built over the ruins of classic Roman temple and some of the fragments are incorporated into the church's architecture. The prepossessing Mount Hymettos overlooks Athens and her suburbs and the monastery is on a wooded slope a few miles from the suburb of Kaisariani. A short walk from the roadway below the Monastery brings one through small open grassy areas surrounded by Cypresses, with worn stone steps and masses of natural green carpet and wild flowers.
On the actual roadway is a walled fountain which trickles from an internal spring. Their is a cluster of Greek including the delicately beautiful Maidenhair fern (Adiantum) which grows wild and thrives around natural springs. As with many Byzantine monasteries, Kaisariani is well fortified, there being a high wall around the monastery which encloses the conventual buildings, the church of Katholikon, refectory, bathhouse and monk's cells.
The aura of tranquility is inspiring in this charming spot. The water of the "kallia" fountain to the left of the entrance to the monastery at the east side of the wall, holds another spring, nestling in a small alcove, water tumbling from a marble Ram's head of the Roman period. The Ram's head caused the Turks to name the monastery after it:
Kots-Bashi, and in later times the monastery was known as "Syriani", how it became known finally as Kaisariani is unclear. The history of the monastery indicates that in the 12th and 13th centuries A.D. the convent was rich and prosperous with monks engaged in apiculture, the rearing of bees, and the honey produced was their chief source of income.
Their survival throughout several foreign dominations they ensured by coming to terms with their conquerors. By securing certain privileges (no taxation for instance) they managed to survive as a monastery until the early 1900's. In addition to the apiaries, the monastery of Kaisariani possesed estates and dependencies on Mount Hymettos and in other parts of Attica (Anavyssos) and must have played an important role in the surrounding area and in the city of Athens.
At the apex of its prosperity, the monastery was a cultural center for the whole region. It owned a rich library and its abbots were renowned scholars and teachers. Sadly the books and precious parchment manuscripts of the library were transported to the Acropolis along with the books from the Metropolis Cathedral, and were used to ingite cartridges during the final period of the war of independence.
The leading nobility of Athens were associated with the monastery. In principle, the Venizelos family whose members remained powerful during the period of the Turkish rule. The tower built by the Venizelou family is still within the monastery walls. These towers were built by the influential families to watch over and supervise their estates on Mount Hymettos.
The Kaisariani Monastery was built in the 11th century on top of the foundations of an ancient secular building of unknown period. Apart from the main church and bathhouse, which are original 11th century structures, the nathex, belltower and side chaper of St. Anthony are later additions belonging to the time of the Turkish occupation.
The buildings are set around a courtyard and enclosed by a high wall. On the east side is the church, the west side the refectory and kitchen and on the south the bathhouse, converted into an olive press in Turkish times. No doubt olives were another source of income although history doesn't mention this. Beside the bathhouse (or olive press) is a miscellany of buildings including the monk's cells opening onto a gallery. Roughly in the centre of this wing stands the square structured Venizelos Tower with an external stairway built against the facade.
Kaisariani is characteristic as an 11th century edifice by its proportions: the narrow side bays and the dome with its very tall drum, pierced by eight windows. The dome is supported by four columns from the previous occupant of the site, the ancient temple.Very colourful wall and ceiling murals, mostly on a black background decorate practically the whole of the church.
Biblical scenes depicting the births, the Baptism, the Ascention, the Presentation, the Last Supper and even the Good samaritan are evident. Very few walls are undecorated. The church was laid out in crusiform. The interior of the church comprises a single entity with symmetrically roofed spaces. The high central dome gives the feeling of loftiness in an otherwise quite church.
Several of the ancient stones and carvings have been incorporated into the building of the church and surrounding buildings. Marble elements form a 5th-6th century Early Christian Basilica, the reliefs and fragments of which were also used to embellish the Kaisariani church, serving as ornamental lintels or incorporated in the exterior west wall of the narthex. In the restored panels of the iconostassis, were pieces from this early Basilica.
The Kaisariani bathhouse along with similar ones preserved at Dafni or on Mount Kitheron, are apparently among very few examples known from the period and bear witness to the monastic rule which specified the frequent practise of ablutions. The method of construction is after the tradition of Roman Baths. The Refectory and kitchen are housed together in a single building by the western enclosure wall opposite the front of the church. The arched wall outside the monk's cells from the cloister and the green surroundings, tress, shrubs, plants and undergrowth, add to the beauty of the warm coloured brick. Cypresses stand tall behind the church as if to add their own stately protection.
The Greek Ministry of Culture oversees the upkeep of the monastery as a museum and the surrounding countryside is protected by a society called "Friends of the Trees", very apt nomenclature considering most of the area is wooded. When monasteries were built years ago, the accent was on selfpreservation. Kaisariani is in the perfect spot for this purpose, unseen except up close, yet having a clear view of its surroundings. It was last inhabited up to 1922 when the remaining monks fled the monastery. Since then it became a museum.
The air is clear and fresh, springs trickle gently, wild birds sweep by and in the region, honey bees go about their busy task of producing Hymettos honey for our edification. A truly peaceful spot on the edges of a bustling capital city, a spot in which one can calm the soul and feast the eyes. There aren't many places right near Athens where the ears ring with the quietitube. A priceless experience.
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