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  • Writer's pictureStella Sevastopoulos, MA

A Brief History of the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture in Athens

What is the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture?

The Benaki Museum of Greek Culture hosts a selection of artefacts and artworks expressive of the territory now called Greece, spanning from the Neolithic age up to the 20th century.

Front of the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture building

Benaki Museum of Greek Culture

From ancient Greek and Roman busts to beautiful Byzantine icons and jewellery, as well as costumes and artefacts redolent of the Greek Revolution – among them Lord Byron’s portable desk – the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture offers the best insight into this country’s cultural adventures. The museum is housed in the grand family home of its founder, Alexandrian-Greek businessman, benefactor, and great patriot, Antonis Benakis. His marble bust, created by acclaimed Greek sculptor Konstantinos Dimitriadis, greets you with its benevolent look as you enter the museum.

For Benakis collecting and service to one’s country were two sides of the same coin: in 1930 he donated his collection to the state, and then set about turning his home into a museum, which opened to the public in the following year. His sister Penelope Delta was a famed children’s writer, and her book Trellantonis (which translates as ‘Crazy Antonis’) is inspired in part, by their childhood adventures in Alexandria, Egypt, but also describes her brother’s passion for collecting, already present in his childhood. Trellantonis, the protagonist, always has his pockets full of all sorts of treasures, from marbles to a beautiful piece of glass that had fallen from the church’s chandelier.

Antonis Benakis was born in 1873 in Alexandria. Educated at an international school, later also at a boarding school in England, he then returned to Egypt, and worked in the family’s lucrative cotton business. After successfully running the family business until 1926, he moved to Greece, and turned his attention to creating and developing his museum and its collection from the ’30s onwards, until he died in 1954.

At first, the young collector’s eye was caught by weaponry and cultural heirlooms, alongside Islamic art. Ceramics followed and the collection was also enriched with art and artefacts from other periods, from the Greek Neolithic and prehistoric, to the Byzantine and later periods, reaching up to the 20th century. He also gratefully received or solicited donations, bolstering the collection to its current magnitude.

There are so many beautiful items to admire here, and many visitors will certainly swoon over the Byzantine jewellery in particular; lovely copies are available in the Benaki shop. Don’t miss, for example, the 5th-century gold necklace (found in Antinoe, Egypt) with emeralds, pearls, amethysts and sapphires with matching snake-design earrings. Particularly intriguing are the grand hairstyles of some terracotta female heads, complete with pierced ears so that earrings can be inserted. They’re also from Egypt, and date back to the second half of the 2nd century AD.

The clay vessels, arrow heads and marble idols from the Greek Neolithic age contrast with the sophistication of later ceramics, such as the collection’s ‘Black Glaze Pyxis’ made in Attica in the 4th century BC. These cylindrical vessels were used to store jewellery and cosmetics and often accompanied the owners on their journey to the afterlife. Upon carefully inspecting this pyxis, you’ll be able to discern motifs such as a necklace, myrtle and grape designs, a dolphin (often cast in the role of chaperoning a soul to its next life), a crescent moon (symbol of rebirth), and some insects, such as a cicada and grasshopper (symbols of immortality).

Another Benaki treasure is the ‘Gold Mycenaean Signet Ring’ from Thebes, which is part of the so-called ‘Thebes Treasure’. It dates back to the late 15th century BC and depicts two figures (male and female) in what has been interpreted as some kind of ‘sacred wedding’, with the sun shining above them, and the symbol of horns also included in the design. Such treasures are small examples of the great artistry of ancient civilizations.

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