They say that when a spot is sacred in Greece, it has usually been holy for a very long time indeed, and the monastery of Kaisairiani is no exception. It stands on a site that has been a place of worship since antiquity.
Kaisariani monastery was built in the 11th century over the ruins of a 5th-century Christian church that was built over an older temple; it is thought that a shrine to Aphrodite stood here in ancient times.
The complex we see today was mostly erected in the 11th century and remained in use during Ottoman times. It was a rich monastery, and in its heyday hosted many significant spiritual leaders and thinkers.
Kaisariani had an important and renowned library that was unfortunately destroyed during the uprising of 1821. Some of the monastery’s rarest texts and manuscripts were said to have been transported to the Acropolis where they were used to ignite fuses, and others were reputedly sold off to English traders.
The remains of a bath house, built on the Roman plan with hot and cold baths proves that it wasn’t all Spartan style living for the early inhabitants of Kaisairiani and warm water was used to heat the refectory and the monk’s cells.
Later, during the Ottoman occupation, the bath house became an oil press, parts of which have been preserved.
The monks supported themselves through income gained from beehives, large olive groves, and vineyards. They were also renowned for concocting herbal medicines. The monastery’s kitchen and refectory now only house some sculptural fragments but it’s easy to imagine how it must have looked when used.
The church houses some beautiful paintings dating from the late seventeenth century.
There are rules for the position of painted subjects in the Orthodox church and this church follows them strictly. Christ is in the dome, the prophets are around the windows, while the mother of god is enthroned in the apse with the angels and apostles below her.
It is said that the name “Kaisairiani” comes from the spring, part of the river Illissos, which once supplied Athens with it’s drinking water and still flows at the site today. Legend has it that a Roman emperor deemed the spring to be ‘imperial’ or kaisairan (from Caesar).
Another legend says that Aphrodite blessed this stream and Greek brides who wished to become pregnant often journeyed here to drink as the waters were believed to speed conception. Nowadays, however, this romantic notion is dampened by a sign from the ministry warning visitors not to drink the water.
It’s well worth mentioning that if you visit Kaisariani in Spring, early summer or autumn it’s a great idea to bring a picnic and walking shoes, the surrounding area up the slopes of Mount Hymettus is truly beautiful with a lot of shade and many great picnic areas.
see “A Walk on Mt. Hymettus” video: