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  • Writer's pictureStella Sevastopoulos, MA

A Brief History of the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art in Athens

What is the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art?

The Benaki Museum of Islamic Art is a museum in Athens that charts the history of Islamic art and features over 12,000 artefacts that were moved from the Benaki collection to its new home in 2004.

Ottoman plates at the Benaki museum of islamic art

Catlemur, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Benaki Museum of Islamic Art History

This particular area of Athens, known as Keramikos, takes its name from the ancient potters who used to work here. It’s fitting, therefore, that a museum filled with ceramic masterpieces should find its home in such a place. Although, there’s so much more on show: Ottoman armour, weapons, helmets, beautiful cloisonné jewellery, luxurious textiles and carpets. Precious architectural fragments include 8th-century door panels from Mesopotamia, considered one of the museum’s most important artefacts. Most impressive is the elaborately designed reception room which has been literally transplanted from a 17th-century mansion in Cairo.

The beauty of the collection, which was moved from its former home in the Benaki collection to its new home in 2004, in time for the Athens Olympics, is that it includes examples of Islamic art from many countries, and traces its history right from the start of Islam and through the Ottoman period up to the mid-20th century. On the first floor, the collection begins with the Islamic world from the 7th to the 12th centuries, with glorious examples of the gold and white ‘Lustre Ceramics’ from Iraq and Egypt, but also examples of ceramics that use the technique of incising (cutting designs into the clay surface). Look out for the 9th-century marble cenotaph from Egypt, inscribed with an advisory verse from the Koran: ‘let not then this present life deceive you, nor let the chief Deceiver deceive you about God’. But the most impressive exhibits on this floor are the uniquely designed 8th-century Umayyad dynasty door panels from Iraq. (The Umayyad Caliphate was the second caliphate that was formed after Muhammad’s death in AD 632.)

The second floor presents artefacts from the 12th to the 16th centuries. From the golden lustre of the ceramics on the first floor, you’ll pass on to Iranian black and turquoise ceramics. Whilst on the third floor you’ll progress to the 16th and 17th centuries, and the cobalt blue and white ceramics of Iznik pottery, named after the town of its origins in western Anatolia. The unique combination of Chinese design elements with those of Arabic patterns such as arabesque lines, give these ceramics their more familiar style, given the proliferation of Chinese forms in Christian Europe. The Ottomans invented ‘fritware’ ceramics, a technique by which clay is mixed with ‘frit’ (a calcinated mixture of ground glass and fluxes), in order to create a stone paste, which, after firing, resembles Chinese porcelain. The Ottomans loved Chinese porcelain, both in its design and its forms and materials, and so in a sense, were driven to make their own version of it. On this floor, you’ll also find that re-established reception room, that was once part of the home of a senior official of the Ottoman Empire. One can only imagine the tales that were told here – or is it there? – while smoking the nargileh and drinking tea or coffee!

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