The museum celebrating Greece's link to the Islamic world
We discover artefacts from cities such as Makkah, Cairo and Istanbul during a visit to the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art
It has been a busy two months for Mina Moraitou, head of the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art in Athens. The museum has just finished hosting the Roads of Arabia exhibition straight from Louvre Abu Dhabi and its staff are catching their breath after giving visitors 62 guided tours in only eight weeks.
“It was really a spectacular exhibition,” Moraitou says, speaking in the museum’s sunlit rooftop cafe. “We were able to create scenery to display these objects. So, people were enthusiastic and really interested.”
Moraitou is right to be proud of the museum’s latest achievement. Nestled in a cluster of neoclassical buildings and archaeological sites in the Greek capital’s Kerameikos district, it is one of the few institutions dedicated to Islamic art and culture in Europe.
It opened in 2004 and is one of 18 museums, archives and conservation centres founded by an institution set up by Antonis Benaki, a Greek born in Alexandria in 1873. “As he was beginning his collecting activities, Islamic art was a vital part of these initial acquisitions,” Moraitou says. “And he brought his collection with him [to Athens] in 1926 and he continued to buy until the end of his life. In his correspondence, he says that his idea was – apart from donating and endowing his collection to the public – to also endow collections of other cultures.
As he was beginning his collecting activities, Islamic art was a vital part of these initial acquisitions. And he brought his collection with him [to Athens] in 1926 and he continued to buy until the end of his life.
He was very much Greek, a very patriotic Greek, but he was also a European of his time and a product of this Alexandria community.”
Greece’s closeness to the Islamic world is important for Moraitou. “Here in Greece we are swamped with history and art, and this is quite wonderful, and in most cases we excel in certain periods, but it is important to understand what’s actually next door to us,” she says. “It’s not art from America or a faraway land. It is next to us – if it’s Ottoman Turkish or Egyptian or Syrian. We are closer than most people think.”
That closeness has not always been a source of harmony. The Ottoman legacy in Greece is still a sensitive subject for many, but Moraitou is phlegmatic about such controversies. When asked if having an Islamic art museum in Athens has even been divisive she says: “Well, less than you would have thought.
“The thing is that when we first opened, people would say ‘Ottoman things’. But Ottoman is only one third of the whole museum. It was great to explain to the Greek public that this is a museum of Islamic art, which means that you have Arab art and you have Iranian art and you have Ottoman art.
The issues we had were mostly the cliches that you would find when you are talking about Islamic art and history with people.”
And people do want to talk about Islamic art. Most of the thousands of visitors who come to the museum to see its more than 10,000 objects are Greek, which Moraitou describes as “the target group”.
The museum has a vast array of exhibits, ranging from the 7th to the 19th centuries. Artefacts chart the histories of the great cities of the Muslim world – among them Makkah, Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul and Baghdad. Seljuk Turks rub shoulders with the Mongols and the Ayyubids.
The collections of weapons, artworks, jewellery, textiles, books and furniture trace the political, commercial and religious life of all these cultures and their interactions with one another. Particularly impressive is an entire 17th-century reception area from a Cairo mansion, complete with fountain and inlaid marble floor, which once belonged to a senior Ottoman official.
The Muslim world’s scientific legacy is also on show at the museum, with a set of 19th century Iranian surgical implements with golden designs. The interaction of different cultures is apparent, as this surgical tradition mixed Greek, Indian and Persian knowledge with instructions on personal hygiene found in the Quran and Hadiths.
Its collection of Ottoman ceramics, particularly the hand-painted Iznik style, is another draw. The swooping, blue-on-white decorations were developed in workshops from the late 15th century onwards, expanding on earlier Persian designs and techniques.
“We had an exhibition about how Iznik was regarded in the 19th century and how it was copied and how it was studied,” Moraitou says. “There was a wonderful exhibition bringing together all the books and publications and actual Iznik ceramics, and then copies from Greek workshops up to the early 20th century.”
The museum also maintains close ties with the UAE. In 2017, it worked with the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization to bring a unique collection of 60 drawings of 18th century Istanbul by the British author Thomas Hope to the emirate.
But Moraitou is also keen on the contemporary. “We are planning a photographic exhibition on Casablanca with the photographs of Melita Vangelatou, who lived there for many years,” she says. “It’s not only going to be a photographic exhibition, but she will also tell us the stories of the city, bringing to light different aspects of everyday life, but also the transformation of Casablanca from the early century to today.”
Even the museum’s terrace cafe – a destination in itself and which has a clear view of the Acropolis – nods to Greece’s links to the Middle East. A creation of visual artist Navine Khan-Dossos, its walls are decorated with colourful palm trees.
“There is this urban myth in Athens that it was full of palm trees and at some point these were cut down to make the city more European,” Moraitou says. “So, you know what happened to the palm trees – they now are all in the top of the Museum of Islamic Art.”
The Benaki Museum of Islamic Art is open on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 6pm. For more information about the museum, visit www.benaki.org
Updated: June 10, 2019 05:30 PM