When you reach Daphni, you may want to take a few minutes to look at the church's lovely brickwork and think about the history of this sacred spot. There have been shrines here since antiquity, when there was a temple to Apollo. The temple is long gone (except for one column near the entrance), but the name Daphni (Greek for "laurel," Apollo's favorite plant) still honors that god.
In the 6th century, a small monastery was built here, later expanded in the 11th century. The monastic buildings have been almost entirely destroyed, but the domed church dedicated to the Virgin Mary remains. Over the centuries, Daphni has been repeatedly damaged by invaders and earthquakes, and repeatedly rebuilt. You'll see an example of that rebuilding in the twin Gothic arches in front of the church's west entrance. These were added by the Cistercian monks who turned Daphni into a Catholic monastery after the Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204. During the long period of the Turkish occupation, there was no functioning monastery here -- for a while, the buildings were used as army barracks. After the Greek War of Independence, Daphni was reclaimed by the Greek Orthodox church and restored.
A severe earthquake in the 1980s prompted another round of restoration in which the church was strengthened and its dazzling mosaic cycle repaired. Step inside and let your eyes become accustomed to the dark. On the central dome is the commanding mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (the Almighty). This image of Christ as an awesome judge is quite different from the Western image of Christ as a suffering mortal. If you're familiar with the Old and New Testaments, you'll be able to pick out familiar stories in the mosaics throughout the rest of the church. As is traditional in Greek Orthodox churches, the Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism, and Transfiguration are in the squinches supporting the dome, and the 16 major prophets are displayed between the windows of the dome. The Adoration of the Magi and the Resurrection are in the barrel vault inside the main (southern) entrance of the church, and the Entry into Jerusalem and the Crucifixion are in the northern barrel vault. Mosaics showing scenes from the life of the Virgin are in the south bay of the narthex (a passage between the entrance and nave). Even if you're not familiar with the stories, and even if you find the mosaic of Christ Pantocrator grim rather than awesome, you may well be enchanted by the charming details in scenes such as the Adoration of the Magi.
Open or Closed? -- Be sure to check with the Greek National Tourism Organization (tel. 210/870-0000) or the Ministry of Culture website (www.culture.gr) to see whether Daphni, closed for some time, is open when you plan to visit.