The Museum of Islamic Art in Athens is a real gem of the city, which can help you to trace back to the formation of Islamic culture without leaving Greece.
It was founded by Antonis Benakis in order to commemorate his father Emmanuel Benakis, who was a famous Athenian entrepreneur and a mayor some time later.
The Benaki Museum of Islamic art is located in a neoclassical building next to the Kerameikos cemetery and the Doric temple of Hephaestus. Once inside, visitors can better understand the changing cultural and political boundaries of Greece within the broader history of the Ottoman Empire.
An interesting fact: in 1996, during the reconstruction work, ruins had been discovered in the basement of the museum. Historians identified them as the remains of the ancient Athenian city wall and a sepulcher. Subsequently, the design of the Museum has undergone some changes, so that the newly discovered finds fit harmoniously into the existing ensemble and atmosphere.
The museum's exposition includes more than 8000 items that date from the 7th to the 17th century. Among them, you can see:
- The ceramic plates from the town of Iznik, which was the main supplier of dishes to the court of the Ottoman ruler in the 15th century. These ceramic products are characterized by blue cobalt with arabesques and palmettes of lotus flowers, which are an Ottoman version of the Iranian decor. Next to them, there are options of light turquoise and green colours. There are several different versions of dishes, so you can trace the gradual development of skills of craftsmen who improved their painting by depicting an increasing number of plants and flowers on the products. The town of Iznik also produced ceramic tiles for decorative or souvenir purposes. There are 6 tiles in the museum, on which the Holy mosque in Mecca is depicted. Such decorative items were created on the basis of miniatures from manuscripts and chronicles. Kaab is in the centre, and minarets, the pulpit, the Holy spring of Zamzam are all around, as well as kiosks of various religious schools — Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi. The verses in the Turkish language are at the top of them;
- A piece of marble floor from a 17th-century manor house in Cairo. A geometric pattern of multicoloured ornaments is typical of Egypt and Syria. There is a small fountain in the centre;
- Ottoman silk fabrics with gold embroidery and oval sections from the second half of the 16th century from Constantinople. Special attention should be paid to the version with gold and silver embroidery with palmettes of lotus flowers and thick leaves of the mid-16th century. This pattern is considered to be the best example of weaving skills of that time. It is embroidered according to sketches that were made by court artists. A similar ornament can be seen on two caftans, which are stored in the Tapkana Palace in Constantinople. They probably belonged to two sons of Suleiman the Magnificent;
- A wooden compass with the names of cities of the Ottoman Empire and with the image of the mosque in Mecca. This compass was made in Turkey in the 19th century;
- 240 pieces of jewelry made by Iranian jewelers in the 19th century, most of which were purchased in the markets of Alexandria and Cairo. These things are characterized by the use of painted enamel and deriving of subjects from European painting. The owner of the collection is Antonis Benakis' own sister;
- A casket from Ketahi. The symbols on the bottom and on the inner side probably indicate the owner. The nature of the painting helps to see the influence of Chinese painting on the Iranian masters. This piece was purchased from another Greek collector at an exhibition of Muslim art in 1929. It still has a sticker with the serial number on it;
- A decoration of a headdress with a portrait of Shah Fath-ali made of painted enamel that dates back to the end of the 18th century. Shah Fath-ali was an influential ruler and a famous patron of culture and art. His era was marked by the restoration of the Iranian monarchy’ power. The decoration has the shape of a crescent combined with the rising sun, which serves as the emblem of the Iranian honourable order of the sun, created by the emperor.
- Ceremonial colors that were used at the religious memorial feast of Ashura. At the Ashura ceremony the scenes of the martyr imam Hussein’s death are reproduced. Five rays symbolize the five members of the prophet Muhammad’s family: himself, his daughter Fatima, son-in-law Ali and his grandsons Hassan and Hussein.
There are 5 exhibition halls in the museum, each of which smoothly continues the theme of the previous one.
How to get
The Benaki Museum of Islamic art in Athens is located near the “Theseion” metro station.
- There is a cafe with a beautiful view of the Acropolis on the top floor of the museum.
- Free Wi-fi is available inside the museum. You can connect and scan QR codes next to the exhibits to listen to information about them. The audio guide is available in Russian, English, French, Spanish and Greek.
- If you buy an Athens spotlighted card at the airport, the exit will cost 2 times less.
- You can visit the museum for free every Thursday.