Elefsis, Elefsinian mysteries and Dafni monastery

It was a privilege of Athens to have a city full of life and history nearby.

ELEFSIS or as it known today ELEFSINA was one of the five sacred cities of antiquity. 30 km from the historic Athens, is the birth place of the Elefsinian Mysteries and goddess Demeter challenges you to explore it! It was an ancient center of religious rites celebrating life, death, and rebirth. The people that were initiated believed in life after death. It resembles the year time cycle on earth. Here was the Sanctuary of Demeter, scene of the secret cult of the Elefsinian Mysteries of Demeter from 1500 BCE until 525 CE. There are extensive remains from the Mycenaean era to the Roman, and the most important monuments are the Anaktoron (=Palace), the Telesterion (=the holiest part of the site) a temple which held several thousand people during the rites and the Ploutonion (= the cave of Hades) through which Persephone returned to earth.
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On the way from Athens to Elefsina the monastery of Daphni is well known for its Byzantine mosaics.
This site has been sacred since ancient times. Originally it hosted a Temple of Apollo, from which the name Daphni (daphne is Greek for “laurel”) gets its name. The temple was destroyed around 395 AD when paganism was outlawed by the Byzantine Christian emperor; one surviving column of the temple can be seen near the entrance of the monastery.

In the 6th c. a small Christian monastery dedicated to Virgin Mary was built here. It was abandoned during the Slav invasions of the 7th and 8th c. then rebuilt, when the Byzantine Empire was at its peak on a much grander scale around 1080. This is the church that survives today, although most of the monastic buildings have been lost.

The monastery repeatedly suffered from invaders and earthquakes. 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. The Monastery of Daphni was a Cistercian monastery for almost 250 years. Two Frankish dukes of Athens, Otho de la Roche and Walter de Brienne, were buried here.

After the Ottoman Turks took Athens in 1458, they gave Daphni back to the Greek Orthodox monks. But Daphni was not a functioning monastery during the Turkish occupation; for a time it was used as 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 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.

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 c. with cells added in the 16th c. Classical and Byzantine sculptural fragments are displayed here and two sarcophagi decorated with fleur-de-lys and Latin crosses (may be the tombs of the 13th-c. 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 c. 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.

Getting There

Although Dafni is only 9 km west of Athens, it can be quite a hassle to get there independently. A taxi or rental car can take up to an hour 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.