Daphni, Hosios Loukas and Nea Moni of Chios
The Monasteries of Daphni, Hossios Luckas and Nea Moni of Chios are masterpieces of the second golden age of Byzantine art.
The three geographically distant monasteries date from the 11th and 12th centuries. They have the same typology and aesthetic features, with a large dome and marble and mosaic decorations on a gold background.
Community Perspective: most people visited Daphni as it is conveniently close to Athens, although a visit never was satisfying as it has been under construction for ages - the first review after fully reopening is from Bergecn. Hosios Loukas (near Delphi) has been covered by Ilya, Clyde and David, while John and Tsunami reported on Nea Moni on the island of Chios.
Map of Daphni, Hosios Loukas and Nea Moni of ChiosLoad map
If it were not located next to a busy modern day national road one could imagine the Daphni Monastery to be located in Shakespeare’s Athenian forest with elves, kings and queens enjoying a pleasant Midsummer’s Night on the lush meadow among the pine trees behind one of the Greek capital’s most impressive buildings of the Middle Byzantine period. The site was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1990, together with the Monastery of Hosios Loukas near Delphi, and Nea Moni on the island of Chios.
We visited on 1 May 2022, a day when Athenians come out to the country side to celebrate spring, enjoy lunch with the family and friends, and bring back flowers and wreaths to their homes.
Already when it was first built in the 6th century, the monastery was erected on an important road, the ancient Sacred Way - the Iera Odos, and served as a way station to Eleusis and farther to Corinth and the Peloponnese. It is the site of the sanctuary of Apollo Daphnaios which was destroyed by the Goths in the 4th century. It is mentioned in the little museum that of the old temple only one column of the narthex remains, while the others were removed by Lord Elgin and are now in the British Museum. The missing columns were replaced by white marble replicas. Throughout the centuries after the fall of the Byzantine empire the monastery suffered looting and damage. After the Ottoman conquest of Athens in 1458, the monastery complex was restored to the Orthodox monks.
As a temporary exhibition (Philhellenism and Greek Revolution - The Daphni Monastery through travellers; open until 11 September 2022) points out, it played an important role during the Greek struggle for independence in the early 19th century when it was used as a garrison. Later Bavarian troops were stationed there and at the end of the century it was also used as a psychiatric asylum.
The monastery was hit by several earthquakes, the latest in 1999, which caused severe damage to the katholikon. Since then the site was closed for many years and only recently reopened after extensive restoration work financed by the Greek government and the European Union, ensuring seismic protection of the structure. Its superb mosaics on gold background date from the end of the 11th century, a fine example of Middle Byzantine art with scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin. The katholicon of Daphni Monastery is said to be one of the most beautiful domed churches in Greece. Christ Pantokrator dominates at the centre, flanked by prophets and the Virgin Mary in the apse accompanied by angels; other scenes depict the annunciation and birth, baptism and transfiguration of Christ.
Below the narthex is a crypt built for the medieval Dukes of Athens, currently not open to the public. Flanking the main yard are the monks’ cells. Today the western side houses offices and a small museum, on the eastern side the temporary exhibition in two rooms on the ground floor; on the upper floor are several rooms and a veranda but not accessible at the time of the visit. Around the yard there are the remains of wells and various buildings in different states of preservation.
North of the church lie the ruins of the refectory; in the south-east the cemetery of the monastery with the 9th century chapel of Agios Nikolaos. The monastery is protected by a fortified enclosure, which is currently under restoration and covered by scaffolding.
The entrance is currently free and you can visit Wednesday-Sunday 08:30 to 15:30. You need to ring the bell at the outer gate and will be received by people working on the restoration project who will also gladly give you information. You can arrive by car, via Iera Odos or if you come on Athinon Avenue you need to turn well before the monastery left to Satovriandou and then right, to Iera Odos. Be aware you cannot turn left at the monastery directly and the next chance to turn back is several kilometres down at the coast. If you use public transport, take Metro Line 3 to the Agia Marina stop, from there you walk 40 metres to the bus stop and go to Psyciatreio/Moni Dafniou). Information in the Braille system is available. There is a coffee shop and restaurant next door.
Two Visits to Nea Moni of Chios
I stayed in Greece over 2 months in October and November 2020 in my attempt to live in corona-free zones. When I planned this back in September, Greece was indeed one of the least infected countries in Europe, although as soon as I got there, the infection rate skyrocketed.
After visiting Daphni in Athens a day after visiting Bassae, I flew to the island of Chios, the birth place of Homer, to stay there for one month. I was aware that one of the three sites that comprise this WHS was on some island in the Aegean, but after visiting Daphni I didn't pay much attention. So when I realized that Nea Moni was indeed on the island of Chios, I was surprised and said I had to go visit.
It was ridiculously difficult to visit Nea Moni, located deep in the mountains, with public transportation, not just because of the scarcity of it, but also because of Nea Moni's sporadic opening hours. Not only they close in the middle of the day, but also they were not even following the official opening hours listed by the Ministry of Culture.
At my first attempt to visit Nea Moni the Chios tourist office, which was surprisingly open at this time of pandemic, gave me the same opening hours as the ministry of Culture. The bus dropped me off on the main road at 15:40, from where I had to walk 2 km to Nea Moni. There was no sign of opening at 16:30, the official re-opening hour. I almost panicked because there was no signal on my mobile and I was counting on someone at Nea Moni to call a taxi for me from their landline phone. After banging the gate for several minutes, I noticed that the door of the only car parked by the gate was unlocked. So I opened the door and honked the horn for another several minutes to no avail. I shut the door hard. In despair I started walking back to the city of Chios, 15 km away, so that I wouldn’t miss the last bus from the city back to my flat. Hitching a car is more difficult during the pandemic, but after walking about 4 km I stopped a car going in the opposite direction on the main road whose driver had phone signals and who called a taxi for me from there to the city.
My second attempt to visit Nea Moni didn’t come until my last day on the Island of Chios because I kept telling myself to forget about Nea Moni. But my conscientiousness made me change my mind on the last day. I had determined by then that the only way to visit Nea Moni was by taxi both ways (or a rental car). But then what if Nea Moni is closed again when you get there by taxi? That would be a total waste of time and money. They were not answering phone no matter how many times I called. So how do I make sure it is open when I get there?
The Chios tourist office this time suggested that I go talk to someone at the Metropolis of Chios, a few hundred meters from the tourist office, because the Metropolis regulates all the official Orthodox Christian activities on the island of Chios, including the opening hours of Nea Moni. Even though that sounded like an incredibly extraneous thing to do to visit a WHS, that’s exactly what I ended up doing. When I got there and talked a man, he said if I get to Nea Moni in 30 min at 12:30, a janitor will open the gate for me.
I had two points of contact in the city of Chios. One was the tourist office, and the other was an amazingly helpful woman at the long-distance bus station for the island of Chios. She arranged a taxi for me with a special rate of 30 Euros for both ways plus 30 min. of wait time at Nea Moni. I was surprised that the taxi driver was the same man who gave me the ride on my first day in Chios from the airport to my flat.
Nea Moni is basically a gated compound. It is a working monastery but has only one nun who actually lives there today, or so I was told. I only saw the janitor and not the nun / hermit, who probably doesn't want to see anybody or to answer phone. I respect her decision. When there are services, the Metropolis sends more personnel.
The interior of the main church was certainly similar in character to the one at Daphni. Both have the similar degree of deterioration. But what remains was like a shining pearl in the darkness, or so I thought. There was a little brochure in English available at the church, describing its history, which I assume Mr. Booth also picked up 5 year earlier.
The museum was closed, even though I was told at the Metropolis that it was open. I asked the janitor to open the museum, but he did not have the key.
One of the most impressive things about Nea Moni was that even though it is located deep in the mountains, it has a clear view of the Aegean Sea through the opening between the mountains.
Before exiting the janitor led me to an ossuary by the gate where the sculls of Christian monks who were massacred by the Ottoman Turks during the War of Independence in the early 19th century have been kept. But this ossuary was not so atmospheric.
Upon exit I noticed that there was a 10 km trail that connects Nea Moni and the city of Chios, which I'm sure monks and pilgrims used for centuries. I wouldn't take this trail on the way to come to Nea Moni because the disappointment at a closed Nea Moni would be too great, but it may be a good option on the way back, as it should be only downhill from there. In my case the taxi was waiting.
Lastly, although the island of Chios is not an international destination, I recommend it highly. I believe you can see here how the Greek people really live. Even when you are looking for a beach vacation in summer, it's all set here: Nice beaches, totally clear water (as almost everywhere in the Aegean), lower price, and a vibrant city / night life in the city of Chios, even during the pandemic. I would recommend it in September or even October, though, as the beach season in Greece continues all the way till the end of October. But my personal favorite on the island may be this fantastic seafood restaurant called "To Kechrimbari" in the city of Chios, run by a middle-aged husband-wife team.
Read more from Tsunami here.
The Byzantine monasteries of Daphni, Hosious Louas and Nea Moni were built in the 11th century, in what amounted to the peak of Roman power and also the beginning of the ultimate demise. Around the turn of the millennia, the Romans had pushed the Arabs out of the Eastern Anatolian border regions and recaptured parts of Armenia and Syria, protecting their Anatolian heartlands against the incessant Arab raids of previous centuries. On the Balkans, Emperor Basil II, aptly nicknamed the Bulgar Slayer, had subdued the Bulgarian Empire in a decades spanning war. When he died in 1025 CE, the Empire was as powerful and large as it hadn't been since Justinian.
A mere 50 years after the death of Basil II, though, in 1071 CE the historic battle of Manzikert resulted in the Romans losing control of most of of their Anatolian heartlands to the Turks. The Romans would only continue to control the coastal towns. Nowadays, most historians consider Manzikert the beginning of the end of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire.
Daphni was built after Manzikert in 1080. I wonder how the Romans of the period perceived this epic event marking a turning point in history. Probably, it didn't occur to them that they had just witnessed the beginning of the end. If you are interested, I can recommend the Byzantine History Podcast.
In how far it impacted their architecture is hard to tell. It would be interesting to compare all three inscribed sites and see the evolution of architecture and style in the 11th cencutry. It's probably too easy to say they must have found religion. Truth be told, the Eastern Roman Empire had always held religion in high esteem to a degree unfathomable today.
Daphni itself is a small monastery. Due to an earthquake the mosaics and icons are damaged. Frankly, I have seen better, e.g. in Istanbul. In addition, being situated directly on a major road out of Athens the mood is not really tranquil.
I tried to get to Hosios Loukas using public transport, but I really couldn't make it work. I think the easiest option is to take a return cab from Delphi. Daphni, meanwhile, is trivial. You drive right past it if you are driving from Athens to Corinth and the Peloponnese.
By public transport, you get off the metro at Agia Marina. From there catch a bus (811, 866, 876). Note: Google maps will propose dropping you off right in front of the monastery. Tiny issue: There is the aforementioned highway in between you and the monastery, so you will have to backtrack one bus stop for the traffic light; I had to. To save yourself the walk, get off one stop earlier than proposed by google.
The monastery is free but opening times are limited, so check in advance. At the time of writing, it's Wed-Sun 8:00-15:30. They make you ring the bell to enter.
Short update from my return visit to Daphni monastery in July 2019, when almost all the scaffolding was removed (only mosaics 24-29 are not clearly visible due to restoration work in progress). The entrance is still free and the monastery is now open from Wednesday to Saturday, from 11:00 till 15:00. The mosaics are amazing and unbelievably well preseved given that they date back to the 11th century. Mainly the ceiling is covered with remaining mosaics, but the original interior probably fully covered with golden colorful mosaics was likely to be something exceptional.
Of the three geographically dispersed monasteries inscribed together as this WH site, we could only fit one into our Greek itinerary in July of 2018, and our choice fell on Hosios Loukas, the largest and likely the oldest. Hosios Loukas’s fame derives from the lavish decorations of its main church, the Katholikon. These mosaics, frescoes, and marble surfaces date from the 11th century, and are among the best examples of the grand church decoration during Middle Byzantine Renaissance. In addition to the main church, you can visit the crypt, peruse an archaeological collection, learn quite a lot about the history of the monastery itself, and step into a model monk’s cell. Around an hour is quite sufficient to take it all in, but the visit can be extended: there are hiking paths on the mountain around the monastery and a nice shaded terrace with outdoor cafe seating area and great valley views just outside the gate.
Hosios Loukas is located a little bit over 2 hours drive northwest from Athens in the administrative region of Central Greece. Delphi is about further half an hour drive northwest, easy to combine on a day-trip from the capital. It should be noted that Monastery of Daphni, another of the three properties grouped in this site, is located right at the edge of Athens, accessible by public transport (less than 40 minutes from the center of the city). We drove by it, but could not fit a reasonably-timed stop into our schedule.
Read more from Ilya Burlak here.
The Monastery of Daphni is part of the WHS Monasteries of Daphni, Osios Loukas and Nea Moni. All these 3 medieval Greek monasteries contain gold-coloured mosaics that are valued as masterpieces of Byzantine art. The monastery of Daphni, located just outside Athens, is an easy one to access and that’s the one I choose for my visit too. It took about 45 minutes to see it all & even combined with a return trip from and to Athens city center it costs less than 2 hours of your time.
Together with a Russian couple that also wanted to visit Daphni, I left the city bus in a suburb of Athens. Many buses will stop near the monastery, see the official website for the range of bus lines. I used a one-day Ath.ena ticket to pay, it covers the metro rides as well. It was somewhat of a search for the entrance, but then we were faced with a heavily secured monument. Access is prevented by a large iron gate and a high fence that fully encircles the former monastery. Would it still be closed today (= Friday)? No: it turned out that you can ring a bell and then the gate will open automatically.
They have been restoring this world heritage since 1999. It is almost finished, but not yet completely - hence the limited opening times (Tuesdays and Fridays) and free entrance. Workers are busy still on the excavations outside of the main church. We were kindly welcomed though to have a look everywhere and take pictures. It all looks a bit 'new'.
From the outside, especially the windows of the church stand out. They are decorated like a kind of traffic light: 3 circles in a vertical row. The columns that carry the roof of the narthex are almost all replicas: Lord Elgin took the originals along with the frieze of the Parthenon to England, where they now catch dust in the cellars of the British Museum. One original Ionic column is still left: it was reused from the Apollo sanctuary that stood on this spot in Antiquity (and therefore qualifies as spolia I guess).
On the inside, the church is very bright, both because of the use of white limestone and the many windows. Many gold-coloured mosaics can be found on the ceiling and on the upper parts of the walls. Lower to the ground, the walls have wall paintings of a later date.
The mosaics are the distinctive feature of this monastery church. They exclusively depict biblical scenes. The usual set of prophets, Mary with the child Jesus, the archangels, the life and death of Christ and the life of Mary can be seen. There is an information panel in the church that explains which mosaic represents what scene.
The mosaics have a bright-golden background; the colour is so bright because it also incorporates glass. The makers of the mosaics probably came from Constantinople. It is unknown who the sponsors were of this richly decorated building.
Since 1821, the monastery no longer has a religious function and from 1888 on it was in fact already a historical monument. Nowadays, certainly after the renovation is over, the delicate church is a fine destination for a short detour from the Athens monuments.
As indicated in previous reviews, for many years it has only been possible to make very limited visits to the Monastery of Daphni, situated in the Western suburbs of Athens, both in terms of when it has been open and in what could be seen when you got there. The building has had a very chequered life having been sacked by the Franks, been used as a barracks and an asylum and enduring numerous earthquakes. The latest of these in 1999 (9 years after inscription) led to a major restoration project which resulted in the monastery becoming a building site. Most photos on the Web show it completely encased in scaffolding. In recent years it has only been open for limited hours on Tuesdays and Fridays. WHS travellers should know, however, that the situation has improved and that it might be worth their while including a visit to it in any future visit to Athens.
This limited opening was still the situation when we visited it in Oct 2017. However, I can report that all external scaffolding has now been removed and that, internally, there is only a small area still undergoing work in the Narthex which hardly detracts from what is on show - not much different from preservation work one will find in many WHS. Those who visit Athens from now on should be aware that a visit will provide excellent views of the restored mosaics – well worth the “free entry” which still applies! Indeed if you are in the area on a day when it is currently closed it might well be worth checking that it has not, by that time, been fully “opened”. The caretaker we spoke to indicated that it was hoped to do so relatively quickly - though what that means in reality in contemporary Greece I know not! It just “might” be during 2018? The site certainly appears to be being prepared for this with a small museum next to what could be a ticket office (don’t expect “free entry” when it has been properly opened!) and, in an adjacent building, a larger and very interesting exhibition about the entire restoration process with comprehensive and expensively prepared presentation boards and the possibility of an audio visual presentation. The interior of the church also has an explanatory board describing all the mosaics.
I was a bit shocked at the vibrancy of the restored murals and concerned that the process had created something artificial. I was however assured by an expert who was present leading a small group of “Byzantium aficionados” that, what we were seeing, was how they would have been before earthquake damage and the accumulation of years of grime – it appears that the colouring used for the mosaics included ground glass to increase reflectivity. A full “range” of the mosaics is now visible covering “Heaven” in the dome with Christ, Mary, Prophets etc, down through scenes from the Life of Christ to images of Saints.
We gave it a bit over an hour and were easily able to take it in and drive on to Bassae and back using a rental car from downtown Athens on a 1 day hire.
Of the three sites, I have visited Hossios Lukas near Delphi, and Nea Moni on the island of Chios. As others have reviewed Hossios Lukas I shall attempt to describe Nea Moni:
The site is located high in the mountains in the centre of the island. Construction of the church started in the 11th centuary, although little of this remains. It was built in the Macedonian Renaissance style by Constantine IX upon his becoming emperor of Byzantium. The mosaic ceilings are a spectacular feature of the interior decoration.
The church was dedicated to Theotokos, and at its peak held 800 monks. However as a result of earthquakes, the depredations of the Genoese and then the Ottomans, and finally being sacked and looted in the War of Independance in 1822, the population has dwindled to a handfil of nuns.
I visited this WHS in June 2014. At first I had planned to only visit the Daphni Monastery due to its proximity to Athens' city centre. The monastery suffered from severe damage from an earthquake in 1999 and is currently being totally restored. It is accessible to visitors on Tuesdays and Fridays AM free of charge. The exterior is completely covered in scaffolding and there isn't much to see. What disappointed me most though was that a 6 lane highway is built just next to its perimeter and the noise from traffic is unavoidable. The interior is like a construction site and the only damaged mosaic worth mentioning is the one depicting Christ. The only plus side is that you get to visit up close on the scaffolding itself but that is not much of an advantage when viewing mosaics. Following my disappointing visit, I looked up Hosios Loukas. I found out that it is situated near Distomo, about 36km away from Delphi. Therefore I decided to go there before visiting Delphi and it turned out to be a very good choice indeed. The surroundings of Hosios Loukas are very pretty, overlooking a huge valley full of lined olive trees beneath Mt Helicon. The exterior itself is very well maintained and the whole monastery complex can be visited not only the church itself. However, the main highlight of my visit was definitely the church interior and crypt with splendid Byzantine mosaics and frescoes of Orthodox monks from the period of the Macedonian Renaissance.
I have been once to the beautiful monastery of Hosios Luckas, a great masterpiece of the late Byzantine art, one of the three Greek monasteries forming this WHS. The hermit Saint Luke the Stiriote lived here, on the western slopes of the Helicon, isolated in a landscape of olive trees, from 946 until his death in 953, among the ruins of a temple of Demeter, and built here a church dedicated to Saint Barbara (946-955); in the 10th century an another church was built for the pilgrimages of great enduring success, visiting his tomb. Since the 14th the monastery belong to the Cistercians, that dedicated the monastery to the Virgin and maintained it as it was. It was damaged by various earthquakes and by the bombardments of the Second World War. It has a large pentagonal enclosure and extends on an east-west axis bearing traces of successive additions. The monastery has many minor buildings, like the bell tower or the monks’ cells, but the main complex is really stunning. To the north-east there is the church of Theotokos, built on that of Saint Barbara. It is very different in style from the church of Katholikon, because it was reconstructed by the Cistercians, that dedicated it to the Virgin, linked it by a porch with cross vaults to the cells, built a slender octagonal drum and decorated the interior very simply, also with the floor made of nice marble slabs. The crypt of the second primitive church, that contains the tomb of Saint Luke and is decorated with nice 11th century frescoes, is now the crypt of the successive main church of Saint Luke, built in the 11th century. This is built onto the southern wall of the narthex of the Theotokos and has a passage to its esonarthex, forming with it a beautiful block of linked buildings, completed by the heavily restored (mainly in 1943) refectory, a parallel building on the southern side. The huge central volume of the dome rests on a drum pierced with sixteen windows and is supported on three sides by bays with groin vaults and inside (where is also a women’s gallery) by penditives. The church, made of stone and terracotta, has windows under pointed arches; the bema and the apse define the cross-in-square plan of the church (inspired to Saint Sophia of Istanbul). Its complex plan is unified into a harmonious and luxurious whole by the rich decoration of great extent and coherence of mosaics (over the portal of the church of the narthex, on the three apses, on the central vault, on the penditeves of the main dome, on the secondary dome, on the right side of the presbytery), frescos (on the main dome) and marble slabs and medallions of the pavement.
I liked very much the monastery because of its architecture and its mosaics. It’s absolutely worth of visit and justifies the inscription on the WHL. It’s state of conservation is very high (apart from some ruined buildings) but its authenticity have been damaged by the war destructions of buildings (refectory, bell tower…) that have been reconstructed in some cases very well, in others in a bad modern way (cells) and in others left in state of ruin. You must pay for visiting the monastery but not all the buildings are accessible inside, only the main ones. It’s quite hard to reach it. From the highway n° 1 going from Athens to Thessalonika you have to exit at Thebes and take the road n° 3 going to Lamía and at Livadía the road n° 48 going to Delphi and the road n° 29 and at Dhistomon turn on a minor road leading to the monastery.
We have also been trying for three years to visit the monastery of Daphni but it was always closed, two times for restoration works and one for an earthquake happened not much time before, so they have been very frustrating experiences. We have only seen a view of the monastery with its beautiful church (the only standing building together with the enclosure) after climbing all around the surrounding small mounds; however I can’t count it as a visited site, but I can consider visited the WHS of the monasteries because of the trip to Hosios Luckas. It is very easy to reach the monastery because it is about 100 meters from the highway A8 going from Athens to Patras. I can also say that this highway affects the integrity of the site and its surrounding landscape.
Photo: Monastery of Hosios Luckas - Church of Katholikon, Church of Theotokos
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2007 Name change
From "Monasteries of Daphni, Hossios Luckas and Nea Moni of Chios" to "Monasteries of Daphni, Hosios Loukas and Nea Moni of Chios"
Includes former TWHS Hosios Loukas (1985)
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