The Benaki Museum holds one of the most extensive Islamic Art collections in the world. Completed in 1930, much of the museum’s collection originates from Alexandria, Istanbul and Paris and was obtained in the early 20th century. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum have loaned permanently to Benaki a significant amount of Persian ceramics, Ottoman tiles and many Islamic manuscripts. Clearly the museum’s collection is expansive. What makes the museum especially unique is its location–the conservative Orthodox Christian city of Athens, Greece.
The museums holds over 8,000 artifacts that cover over 12 centuries of Islamic Art including ceramics, metalwork, finely wrought gold jewelry, armor, wood carvings, glass-work and textiles. This exhaustive collection in the museum draws many viewers for educational purposes; however, in more recent years, the museum has also served a social purpose as well.
Athens is the only remaining European capital that does not have a functioning mosque within its city’s borders. “12 percent of the country’s work force is non-Greek, and the presence of Muslim immigrants on the streets of Athens is stoking the resentment of Greek workers competing with them in a lean economy,” (Snapshots). This resentment has lead to a change in Benaki’s purpose as a museum. While previously, the museum served to educate interested tourists, school children, and Athenian locals, now Benaki has a social cause.
Many of the exhibits that come through Benaki are themed with the idea of modern Islamic culture. In 2004, a modern photo exhibit called “The Modern Arab World” generated a lot of discussion in Athens. The photos were stark contrasts to the image most Grecian held of modern-day Islamic cultures. These pictures included, “a veiled woman passes in front of an illuminated McDonald’s sign in Kuwait City. Overweight boys in djellabas drive race-car simulators in a Dubai video arcade. Syrian girls hurl snowballs at each other on a mountain resort close to Damascus,” (Snapshots).
This juxtaposition of traditional Islamic symbols with modern western culture aides in integrating the growing Muslim population within Greece with the Christian Orthodox culture. In this way, the Benaki museum has shifted from not only encouraging educational improvement but also towards instigating social change.
Entrance of Benaki Museum