There are plenty of maddening things in this world. People pushing in front of you in queues is probably top of my madden-making list. Reaching into the fridge for the milk to find your sons have polished it off and not bothered to tell you is pretty annoying especially when it’s 9pm and there’s no time to buy any more before tomorrow’s breakfast. Lateness, umbrellas that won’t open, socks that vanish, towels that get left on the bathroom floor, dogs that yap, bollards that you can’t see until you hear car metal crunching….there are certainly a fair few things to get frustrated about and now I would officially like to add visiting the Byzantine mosaics of Daphni Monastery to the list.
In my humble view, either an archeological site is open or it is not. The mosaics on the walls and dome of the 11th century church just outside Athens are world renowned. This is an UNESCO world heritage site. Anyone who loves all things Byzantine or all things mosaic would have it high on their agenda alongside the churches of Agia Sophia and the Chora in Istanbul and the Greek monasteries of Osios Loukas and Nea Moni. The mosaics have been variously described as a ‘unique, fine example of classical idealism of Middle Byzantine art’ and ‘masterpieces of the golden era of Byzantine art.’ The dull drive along what was once the Sacred Way and is now a monotous strip of fast food outlets and cheap clothing shops would be deemed worthwhile in eager anticipation of the delights ahead. Except there arent any. Whatever the sign and online opening hours might say, the church is closed.
The building was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1999 (yes, more than 15 years ago) and has been firmly shut for restoration ever since. Comments on Trip Advisor suggest that the occasional lucky visitor has been able to slip through but for most of us all you can see if you put your hand through the uninviting metal grille and let yourself in, is the outside of the church covered in scaffolding:
Some pretty 13th century cloisters:
A lackadaisical museum:
A few nice bits of stone:
And an even more lackadaisical video:
But if you want to see the actual mosaics, it is very unlikely that you’ll have any luck. There is no point in railing against the Greek powers that be. This is clearly a complicated restoration, funding has been patchy and a country facing bankruptcy is not likely to have spare cash for tarting up church interiors. So just say so. Don’t lead the poor expectant tourist to the outskirts of Athens and then try and fob them off with a wander around the monastery grounds.
Yet it’s worth taking a deep breath or two and recalling that in the 1,000 year exceptionally turbulent history of this extraordinary building a few decades of closure are relatively insignificant. Over the centuries it’s been sacked by Frankish crusaders, used as a Turkish garrison, battered by a series of earthquakes and even served time as a lunatic asylum. And although Lord Elgin managed to make off with most of the remnants of an ancient sanctuary to Apollo which once occupied the site, miraculously the Byzantine mosaics of Daphni Monastery have more or less survived the test of time.
These mosaics are, according to www.sacred-destinations.com, ‘the largest and finest collection in Southern Greece.’ Wikipedia gives more detail: ‘The church houses the best preserved complex of mosaics from the early Komnenian period (ca. 1100) when an austere and hieratic manner typical for the Macedonian period and represented by the famous Christ Pantocrator image inside the dome, was metamorphosing into a more intimate and delicate style..’
So, naturally, I had to see them. It only took a phone call to the very obliging Ministry of Culture and I was back at the monastery and being led through the door. No photographs were allowed but I climbed the ricketty interior scaffolding with my guide. Up and up we went, rather too briskly for my liking, past the various Biblical scenes, the obscure saints, the baptism of Christ with water coyly covering his nakedness, and there I was…
…as close to God as I may ever get.
For more photos go to: https://02varvara.wordpress.com/2011/04/16/a-photo-essay-the-restoration-work-at-the-daphni-monastery-in-greece-a-unesco-world-heritage-site/