The Glittering Mosaics of Daphni Monastery
Our trip to this monastery included an ancient temple, gilded mosaics, and meeting a Syrian Orthodox couple from India. Wait, what??!
A short drive outside of modern Athens lies the Daphni Monastery, a UNESCO World heritage site with renowned glittering golden Byzantine mosaics…but like much of modern religion, it has its roots in ancient times and pagan traditions.
The ancient Athenians made an annual pilgrimage from near the Acropolis to the coastal city of Eleusis to celebrate and hope for the afterlife. They traveled along a road called the Sacred Way, passing a sanctuary of Apollo at roughly the half-way point.
By the 11th century, this sanctuary was long defunct and Christianity was booming. The sanctuary was chosen as the site for a monastery, incorporating the ancient temple columns into the Byzantine church structure. Only one of the ancient columns remains today, as the Earl of Elgin (of Elgin Marbles fame) eventually plundered the rest.
The gilded mosaics that decorate the interior are considered some of the finest in the world, based on glass quality and brightness of the gold….hence part of the reason the church earned UNESCO status. The monastery itself and its mosaics, however, suffered serious damage during an earthquake in 1999. Restorations are still underway, nearly 20 years later! This seems like an incredulous timeframe, but repairing millennium old art obviously can’t be rushed.
The monastery is only open two days a week, and many online reviews state visitors arrived during the advertised hours only to find the site was closed. We thought so too at first, but we just pulled the gate and it opened! There is no entrance fee and no staffing as far as we could tell.
We enjoyed the relative tranquility of the church as one of only a handful of visitors on this off-the-beaten-path tourist site. Besides a photography/documentary crew with some pretty professional looking equipment, the only other visitors were a priest (I assumed he was the church’s priest, but Gus and his mom spoke to him for a while and learned he was a visitor like us) and a Syrian Orthodox couple from India. Isn’t the latter a very interesting demographic?? After we all probably gave her blank stares, the Indian lady explained that during the sacking of Damascus, the Orthodox Christians fled on ships with no particular destination in mind….they were just trying to reach safe land. Many perished at sea, but some ships arrived in India to establish the Syrian Orthodox church there. I don’t really like talking to people, but cool travel stories like this remind me I should!!
Do you want to go?
Open 8am to 3pm Tuesdays and Fridays, but check here just in case. We combined with a trip to the archaeology site at Eleusis (I’ll write about that soon!) to make the most of the day.
I used Google transit to map out metro + bus directions to the monastery, but we ended up using our favorite driver Niko to take us to Eleusis, where Gus’ mom and aunt picked us up and we drove back towards Athens to Daphni. If we weren’t so lucky to have these awesome tour guides, we probably would have used Uber.