What is the Athens City Museum?
Set in two interconnected 19th-century mansions, once occupied by royalty, the Athens City Museum tells the city’s story through a focus on its people.
Hoverfish, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Athens City Museum History
Everywhere you go in Athens, you’re confronted by signs and symbols of the city’s ancientness. You can’t get far without stumbling across exposed ruins or t-shirts emblazoned with gods and goddesses on souvenir stalls. But the pedestrian who wants to learn about the later stages of Athens’s history – Byzantine, Ottoman or post-independence modernity – has to look a lot harder.
The Athens City Museum, which was founded in 1973 by Lambros Eutaxias, a renowned art collector and Member of Parliament, attempts to provide a light but comprehensive sketch of the city’s history, from its earliest inhabitants, right up to the modern era. The museum is housed across two elegant villas, one of which served as the residence of King Otto and Queen Amalia in the mid-19th century, before they moved to the Old Royal Palace, itself now home to the Hellenic Parliament.
The period brought most vividly to life here is the 19th century, with many of the rooms preserved as they would have appeared to King Otto. There’s also an interactive map of the city in 1842, which you can use to discover how much has survived of the Athens the map represents. Since it was drawn, much of Athens has been destroyed, mainly by war but also by successive waves of redevelopment.
Of all the city’s phases and instances, perhaps the one which has vanished most thoroughly is Ottoman Athens. Its skyline once dotted with minarets, today’s city has thoroughly purged itself of any such traces, erasing them in a process of Hellenisation; you won’t find a single minaret in the city centre. Accordingly, the museum can only provide oblique glimpses of Athens’s Ottoman era – paintings, sketches and models – but they are all the more fascinating for their scarcity. Outside the museum material remains of Ottoman Athens are mere fragments, easily missed by the untrained eye. There’s the winding, labyrinthine Ottoman street pattern left in parts of Psyrri and Monastiraki; the 18th-century Tzistarakis Mosque in Monastiraki Square, which is now an exhibition space; and an unassuming doorway across from the ancient Horologion of Andronikos Kyrrhestes.
The doorway is all that remains of an Ottoman-era madrasa (an Islamic theological school) with a large courtyard in the middle. Arrayed around the courtyard were once small rooms where teachers and pupils lived and were educated in reading, writing and mathematics, as well as Koranic studies. Later, during King Otto’s reign, the building was converted into a prison and the rooms became cells. From the branches of the big plane tree, which stood at the centre of the courtyard, condemned prisoners were hanged in full admonitory view of the others. The building and specifically the tree (which was destroyed by a lightning strike in the early 20th century) is the origin of the Greek saying: chaireta mou ton platano (or ‘greet the plane tree for us’), which is said when someone thinks they’ll never hear more on the subject again, such as an ill-fated relationship.
Alongside the museum’s Ottoman-era treasures, you’ll also find an interesting collection of paintings and engravings by travellers who visited Athens over the centuries, as well as a magnificent oil painting of the city by Jacques Carrey, executed in 1674 prior to the famous explosion that damaged the Parthenon. Exploring the museum’s varied and fascinating artefacts is perhaps the best way to fully understand the development of Athens.
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