A Cave, a Thief, a Mystery, and Two Byzantine Churches
The cave entrance
Pendeli marks the northern boundary of Athens and can easily be seen from the city center on a clear day. This marble mountain is famous as the source of the building blocks for the Parthenon.
This ancient road to Athens begins in front of the cave
The Cave in which our two churches are found is 700 meters above sea level, faces south, and is a pleasant 15-20 minute walk from the main road though quarries and pines.
Although large (approximately 70 m by 45m wide and 20 m high) and not overly steep and with a secure water source inside, not one bone of the prehistoric mastodons, rhinoceri, antelopes, giraffes or hyenas who roamed its slopes and whose bones have been found elsewhere on the mountain were detected here. The theory is that the cavern only came to light in the classical period in the course of quarrying. It did not take the workers long to dedicate the newly exposed cave to Pan and the Nymphs. Many small votives to the God were found when archaeologists excavated. Pan is no surprise since this half human half goat god has a marked preference for caves and, those sure footed workers navigating the rugged surface of the mountain must have felt a natural kinship with him. Appeasing the god of panic would make sense in this treacherous line of work.
N No surprise either that when Christianity became the law of the land that Pan’s cave would be rededicated to the new God. There is evidence that the cave was first used by Christian anchorites in much the same way as caves were taken over early on in Meteora and elsewhere in Greece. These religious solitaries may have led separate lives in prayer during the week but there would have had to have been a place for the communal liturgy as time passed. This cave with an altar would have filled the bill.
The bas relief of the angel Michael (or is it Gabriel?) carved on the cave wall just to the right of the southern sanctuary has all of the hallmarks of early Christian art:
There are other carvings (now enclosed in the southern part of the church) from the same period if you have the patience to search for them among the less than charming modern graffiti that visitors seem compelled to leave. Those who know date these carvings from the period well before 700 AD so they are very old indeed.
These are sketches of the carvings are gleaned from an old text in the library of the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. I did not have them on my visit so I missed a couple. You can try your luck. You can see our Archangel on the left.
It is more than likely that the earliest altar and sanctuary were in the same position as the present southern sanctuary of the church.
What You See Today
The western façade of the church (which was built sometime in the 10th or 11th century) shows just how nicely the older sanctuary was incorporated.
The western facade
The ‘newer’ church is directly behind that imposing stone doorway and is a domed cross in square affair; the rectangular stone wall on the right with the windows is the contemporary extension that covers and encloses the older sanctuary. (The wall on the left of the picture is not part of the church and may have been built for defensive purposes or as part of a refectory? It is a bit of a mystery.)
Sometimes not enough attention is paid to the outside of these old churches and yet a lot of thought was put into their appearance. The windows in the above picture were repeated on the north façade (the one facing the inside of the cave) in a manner that makes the two sides of the building pleasingly symmetrical, especially given the fact that its back door (an unusual feature) ‘matches’ the one on the front of the chapel:
The north facade of the church.
(Not one text mentions the two arched piles to the right of the church. I am guessing either water reservoirs or, more likely, that they were the sub structure of the floor of a building above, now long gone. If they were crypts, no one says so)
An eagle’s eye view will help make the layout of the church comprehensible:
As you can see, there are two churches in one or at least a Siamese twinning with the two sanctuaries sharing the body of the domed nave. The original one is on the right (south) and tradition has it dedicated to Agios Spiridon. The newer one on the left (north) is technically a parecclesia (added on chapel) dedicated to Agios Nikolaos – no matter that it is bigger and more sophisticated than the earlier church. Adding a chapel on to a church, or even several, was normal practice at the time although it is unusual for the add-on to be the larger of the two, – cave logistics!
Look at the parecclesia again and you will see an oddity:
The sanctuary with its altar is at an odd angle and separated from the nave (the ‘cross-in-square’) of the church by a distance greater than normal. This was necessitated by the shape of the cave itself, the unusual presence of that north back door (1), the effort to make the two sanctuaries on the same plane, and to facilitate movement. This unusual gap means that this church is referred to as a not fully developed cross-in-square. The piers holding up the dome are a combination of cave and brick – quite marvelous. In fact the whole marriage between cave wall and brick wall is handled admirably as is the flow between the two sanctuaries in the church.
Agios Nikolaos was set up to be a funeral chapel. There were graves in the floor and two rectangular grates in the floor reveal a crypt under the church; it was used as an ossuary.
By this time, the church belonged to the Pendeli Monastery – as one of its many dependent churches and there would likely have been liturgies in the parecclessia for funerals, on days set aside for remembering the dead, and for the feast day of Agios Nikolaos’ to whom the church was dedicated.
Here pictures speak louder than words.
As you stand under the dome looking south east to the older part of the church, note the very old low marble iconostasis in the background and the wonderful colours of the cave walls.
The view back through the same doorway looking to the north window into the cave. Note the grate down which you can see one ossuary. You can also see the four massive piers which support the dome – all linked by arches – part brick and part cave.
This is the southern sanctuary with its square altar and apse built into the back of the cave. Note that the left side of the marble iconostasis has been built up with brick to hide the prothesis and to help unite it visually with the northern sanctuary area to its left. Beer bottle on the right and some burnt out icons (accident or design?) on the left are a far cry from the complete program of icons that were painted on every possible surface between 1200 and 1250.
Sad remnants of ‘then’: bishops behind the altar
A few portable icons and a coffee cup now
The northern sanctuary is a neater affair, again with a square altar typical of the era and rectangular alcoves behind the stone iconostasis for a prothesis on the left and a diaconion on the right.
This nasty looking device is to impale candles (I hope).
The fun of exploring a church like this one is in the odd details such as the one above- some of which make perfect sense and some which are just – well- odd! If you look back at the picture of the south sanctuary you will notice a pristine blue and white square of cloth hanging from a peg, all alone in an abandoned and none too clean environment.
And then there are the little triangular niches built into the walls:
Some have suggested ossuarys but with a big vaulted basement downstairs, why bother? Maybe the builders just had a Gaudi moment?
I slipped behind the brick wall of southern altar and was rewarded by some faded wall painting and a look through the square niche to the cave behind. Note the squiggles on the lower right. Saints were never depicted on the lower walls and artists filled in those sections with flowers, faux marble effects, or, as in this case, complex weaving patterns:
The prothesis of the south sanctuary
The Dome and the Wall Paintings
The dome with one window opening is presently scoured of its icons. They now reside in the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens.
If you look again at the floor plan, you will see numbers. They are keys to the iconic program identified and dated by experts: not much point .in listing here what you cannot see. The best fragments can be found in the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. What is worth knowing is that the iconic program followed was a complete one and typical of the era. It is interesting to note that a lot of work was being done on the chapel between 1200 and 1250; these wall paintings covered older ones, so it was not because the church lacked decoration.
So why all this activity at that point in time in an out of the way chapel? The answer might lie in the political events of the day. In 1204 Athens and all of present day Greece was overrun by the Franks – the Greek catch all phrase for all invaders from the west. This Latin empire took hold for over two hundred years and was quite successful in the case of Athens. Dukes were installed and, more importantly for our study, foreign archbishops loyal to the pope were appointed and by 1206 the Latin liturgy was introduced in the Parthenon church and elsewhere in Attica.
There was a certain laissaz-faire attitude about the Greeks following their own rite providing that their leaders at least paid lip service to the pope’s jurisdiction, but it is also true that the popular Greek Archbishop, Michael Choniates, refused to accept the Latin rite and went into exile on the island of Kea.
So, technically, the Orthodox rite was illegal and that would have made out of the way churches in the Athens area without much outside scrutiny a lot more popular. There a provincial wall painting team could still find work and paint in the traditional way without interference. If their work lacked the polish of grander churches, that was just a sign of the troubled times.
One wall painting in the south church speaks to this era. It is of Michael Choniates – dressed as a bishop and with a halo. He died in 1220 and as early as 1234 was clearly regarded as a saint by the people of Athens who at that point in their history must have felt the need of one.
This is the fragment that still exists in the Byzantine and Christian museum of Athens:
You might think that would be too small a bit to identify but the experts had help. The same wall painting of Choniates exists in very good nick in another church in Attica, that of Agios Petros in Kalyvia Kouvara.
Michael Choniates is a fascinating character in his own right and his popular canonization is still in effect. His feast day is celebrated on July 4th.
The Davelis Cave’s Weird Reputation
Check out youtube videos of the cave and you will be treated to spooky music and tales of satanic rites, pentagrams, hand carvings that mysteriously move, and even UFOs. The cave was named Davelis in the 19th century after a famous bandit who apparently hid there, managed to gain the sympathy of the Duchess of Plaisance who owned the marble quarry and he was said to be able get to arrive at her mansion at the base of the mountain via tunnels from inside the cave. The Davelis story is probably a suburban myth although a truly great and persistent one. Some bright light has immortalized him in spray paint on a cement bunker just outside of the cave. He is busy counting out gold coins.
The tunnel bit may be partly true. Evlia Tselepi, a seventeenth century Turkish traveler, claimed to have gone through passages originating in the cave and to have visited extensive underground galleries guided by a Pendeli monk.
Words like ‘shunned’, ‘notorious, and ‘feared’ are still used to describe the area of the cave. The stories of recent use by occultists and Satanists are a little scary, and the mountain can be lonely. So when visiting the cave, I invited two friends to accompany me. It was a great outing (as all visits to oddball churches should be) but bodyguards were not necessary. The walk to the cave from where we parked the car was pretty tame and wonderful, - not too steep, and any frisson of impending evil was wiped away as we met a grandfather strolling along with his two year old grandson in tow.
The cave itself is very accessible. If you want to scramble down to the far end, a torch would be a good idea. There are bats.
The real mystery would appear to be what either the Greek Military, or NATO or more nefarious organizations were doing during the 70s and eighties when they started building several tunnels in the area of the cave. They altered the floor of our cave to such a degree that a cement retaining wall had to be built to shore up the churches and built that ugly cement bunker outside of the cave. Questions were raised in parliament and all activity stopped before 2000.
Davelis cave has it all. It is worth a visit for the walk, to explore the cave, to see the ancient marble road, and, most of all, to visit the churches. Even on a hot day the air inside the cave is cool. Draughts of air make the fabled tunnels seem possible and, although the original spring has been made inaccessible, water still trickles down the cave walls and, as we said our last farewell, droplets of water came down from the cavern roof creating watery circles in the cave dust which revealed sparkling marble fragments shining like tiny white teeth.