Davelis’ Cave | Attica

The Davelis Cave is located on Mount Penteli, situated northeast of Athens. Its highest point is the peak Pyrgari, with an elevation of 1,109 m (3,638 ft).
The cave’s name comes from the widely held belief that an infamous 19th century brigand called Davelis used the cave as a hideout and that he hid his treasure inside it.

The artificial entrance to the cave which was accidentally discovered during marble extraction.
Photo © Marina Kiviranta

Mount Penteli has been famous for its white marble since antiquity. Pentelic marble was used for the construction of buildings in ancient Athens.
The Cave was blind until was brought to light ca. the 5th century BC. The surrounding area was used as a marble quarry by the builders of the Acropolis, and it was discovered by chance, during works for the extraction of marble.

One of the Ancient marble quarries of Mount Penteli
Photo © Nicholas Karellos

The transportation of the marbles was a difficult task for the Ancient Greeks, as the carriers had to cross long distances on mountainous and uneven terrain. In order to transfer marbles from Penteli to the western bay of the Acropolis, a particular route was used, which was called Lithagogia (Stone-drive) road.

The ancient Lithagogia road, that would lead from Mount Penteli to the Acropolis Hill.
Photo © Nicholas Karellos

Lithagogia road would start from Penteli at an altitude of 470 meters, and it would follow the Halandri stream for about 8 kms. Then, it continued its route on what is now the Kifissias avenue, reaching about the current National Garden (next to the Parliament) and finally descending to the south side of the Acropolis, at an altitude of 96m. The total length of Lithagogia road was 17,400m (10.8 miles) downhill.

When small marble tiles were to be transported over short distances, then they used phalanges or wooden cylinders, which were called carts. From the slopes of the mountains the marble was placed on wooden grids and their transport was done by levers. These grids at both ends were tied with ropes, which were slowly unrolled from fixed piles or trees to keep them from the sudden landslide. But if marbles had to be transported over long distances in the plain, they would use carriages dragged by pairs of oxen or mules.

There are many preserved churches in Attica, with frescoes dating from the 13th-century. Among them, the two adjacent chapels of the Davelis’ Cave with many wall paintings dating since 1233/1234 – according to an inscription.

The entrance to the Northern Chapel, dedicated to Saint Nicholas.
Photo © Nicholas Karellos

The two contiguous chapels of the cave of Penteli preserve a fragmentary decoration of frescoes of the thirteenth century. This includes a fairly complete iconographical program in the bema of the Southern Chapel (at the back), in addition to certain ornamental themes and a portrait of Michael Choniates, the well-known bishop of Athens between 1182 and 1204.

It may be safely assumed that the actual site of worship was the Southern Chapel, already since the pre-iconoclastic period, as indicated, for instance, by the relief decoration on the rock which consists of crosses angels, eagles and inscriptions.

Pre-iconoclastic relief as decoration on the rock.
Photo © Doula Mouriki
The fresco of dome of the Davelis’ cave church has been removed, restored and it is now preserved in the Byzantine and Christian Museum of Athens.
Photo © Nicholas Karellos

The Northern Chapel (the external one) which was largely used for burials, has the form of a cross-in-square church of an abbreviated type. Of the original decoration a bust of St. Nicholas is preserved in the conch of the bema, a feature which indicates that the chapel was dedicated to that particular saint. The best preserved decoration in the Northern Chapel is in the dome. This includes the medallion of the Pantocrator surrounded by the Virgin, the archangels Michael and Gabriel, eight prophets, as well as the evangelists Matthew and Luke in the pendentives. The decoration of the dome, moreover, preserves the date of these frescoes (1233/1234)

The dome of the Davelis’ cave church in its original location.
Photo © Doula Mouriki

On the floor of the church there are two hatches leading to two small underground crypts. One can go down to the bigger crypt by a few steps . At the time of the ascetics the it was used as an ossuary, while the second (smaller one) was the
tomb of an ascetic, probably a priestmonk or an abbot -as it was the general practice.

At the entrance of the Cave, the monks constructed three cisterns. The two of them are adjacent and next to the chapels. Those water reservoirs were fed by the dripping of the cave roof and, apparently, by an opening of the rock. The stalagmite crust covering the surface of the rock at that point indicates that it once poured enough water from that point. The third cistern was just outside the wall. This apparently was filled with rainwater, thus the ascetics had it for general use.

The Northern Chapel of Saint Nicholas as viewed from the chasm of the Davelis’ Cave
Photo © Nicholas Karellos

In Antiquity, the cave was a place of worship for the followers of Pan and the nymphs. There is a much smaller cave a few hundred meters up the mountain called Nymphaion or Nymph shrine.

A few smaller cavities lead to a dead end or in the past they would hide small water collectors
Photo © Nicholas Karellos

The time of the first ascetics who moved in the Cave can only be estimated through the reliefs found in the chapels, but the views differ; others place them in the early Christian era while others in the post-Byzantine period. Georgios G. Ladas argues that “in the early Byzantine times (150-527 AD), as it appears from the saved inscriptions, the cult of Christianity was established in the Cave” .

Professor Sotiriou was the first to suggest that the first ascetics of the Cave were Christian Cops from Egypt. The Copts usually chose inaccessible sites and mostly isolated caves. Sotiriou’s view of “Egypt’s introduction of ascetic life” is reinforced by the fact that in 641 several Copts left the their place because of the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs, and settled in various parts of Byzantium, among them and in Greece. He also notes that at that time it is considered that the first ascetics on Mount Athos, who came from Egypt, Syria and Palestine, were also settled.

The Chapel and the entrance to the cave. The floor is artificially created with mud since the ancient times.
Photo © Nicholas Karellos

According to Professor Ladas: “... and during late Byzantine times, as well as proven by various inscriptions, there was a monastery established in the cave during the period of the Frankish rule in Athens (1204-1456), because there, in the inaccessible almost heights, one could be in full harmony with the Orthodox worship “.

The monastery of the Cave fell into decline in the early 16th century, with the appearance of Bishop Timotheus: “…During the Ottoman domination, and especially from 1457 until 1578, there were many monks in the cave until the foundation of the Monastery of Penteli by Saint Timotheus. It was then that the monastery of the Cave was abandoned, as well as other hermitages, and the ascetics moved with Saint Timotheos in the newly erected at that time monastery”.

The Davelis’ Cave
Photo © Nicholas Karellos

Evliya Çelebi, an Ottoman explorer who travelled through the territory of the Ottoman Empire and neighboring lands over a period of forty years, also visited Mount Penteli and most probably the Davelis’ Cave:

Evliya Çelebi, Ottoman explorer

In this place there is a large deep cave. The priests lit up candles and then all of us passed between very narrow rocks, we went down from hole to hole and at an hour we reached the depth of the earth and saw the places of the teachers and ascetics. All of them were wearing out their bodies in these caves, and, in unspoken , incomprehensible words they acquired, they say, philosophical knowledge. All these caves are of God-made, they are not human works. Between the rocks there are spots that let the light in. And coming further down to Nadir, one sees thousands of strange works and thousands of human bones. We went out with the priests as our guides in three hours. Then we warmed ourselves in vineyards and orchards.