The Benakis Museum of Islamic Art is a too rarely visited jewel in the heart of Athens.

It is housed in a beautiful five floor neoclassical building in Keramikos, Agion Asomaton 22, just a few meters from the Thisio metro station, and is handicapped accessible. The exhibits are shown in a chronological order by floor and provide a view and hopefully an understanding of the times, the people, their art.The museum hasn’t always been popular amongst locals, possibly due to their long standing feud with neighboring Turkey.All people, (Greeks included!), like to sweep under the rug the pieces of history that we don’t like or do not fit with the “current thinking”. None the less, their shared history exists, the events did take place and we can only learn from them and hopefully become better persons and make the world better.A few forward looking people, Mr Benakis among them have seen the importance of that time period. Mr Benakis, a native of Alexandria grew up and lived among Muslims and probably realized how important it is to accept and live together as he did: in multicultural society. He must have realized this and thus created a museum to give a better understanding of the Islamic world, its people, its art and the gigantic footprint they have left in our world.What Islam left behind was incredibly beautiful and delicate art. It is always amazing the art people can create within the limitations set forth by governments and religions. Under the Islamic faith, art is limited to geometric shapes, depictions of plants and flowers and calligraphy. The words of the Koran are sculpted, sown and written in the form of divine art.On the first floor there are several copies of the Koran, in several styles of writing. In the center showcase there is one miniature copy of the Koran.

I particularly admired exhibit No. 10.Since there was no explanation of where it came from or its age or why it should be there at all, so I asked the guards if they knew anything about it.

Most of the time, museum guards I have asked a question have just returned a blank stare and a shoulder shrug. The fact that I got any answer was a surprise. The first answer I got was that it is either a new exhibit, an old exhibit for which something new was discovered and thus the tag was pulled to be remade. The third answer was the real surprise. The two guards smiled and said they would ask the curator and they could see if they could provide some information.

And this was where the magic happend. The curator’s assistant, Mari, came out and met us. She was so very happy to see that people were interested and paid attention and asked questions.

Mari is an Art Historian who earned her PHD in Islamic Art in England, so of course her command of English was excellent.

It was like someone lifted the cloth that was obscuring our vision. She started talking to us about the museum and the exhibits, but she also started telling us stories.

A story is like a drop of rain. All the water droplets that are suspended in the clouds need a tiny spec of dust to make a raindrop.

What sadness must the engraver have felt as he etched the words on this dagger.

A story always needs a central character to make sense. Someone to bring it together. And that someone was Mari.

She spoke and it was magic.

What I will always remember from this museum is the story that Mary told us about a dagger in one of the exhibit cases on the third floor. A very finely worked dagger of Damascus steel with a black handle. We could see the beautiful workmanship on this side of the dagger. What we could not see, was the poem that was inscribed on the back side of it. “If you will not let me taste the sweetness of your lips I shall plunge this dagger onto my heart” or something close to it.The details usually get lost in time. what we remember is the overall feeling. Hopefully what we have gained is a better prospective about the world. Much like walking in a vast open field and climbing on a tree for a better look around. The view we have from the top of the tree makes us see the world from a different prospective.The art of the Islamic past is still around us today. Walking trough the museum reminded me of walking through the market in Fez, Morocco, although I had only walked a few minutes beyond Ermou street in downtown Athens, past the Ancient Agora and beyond the Ancient Cemetary at Keramikos.
Tickets are 7e, 5e for reduced admission, 1e for journalists.
The museum is open :
Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday: 9:00 – 15:00
Wednesday: 9:00 – 21:00 (free admission for everyone!)

 

HOLY WEEK:
Tuesday, Thursday 9:00 -15:00
Wednesday: 9:00 – 21:00
Friday: 12:00 – 15:00

Saturday: 9:00 – 15:00

Closed on Monday and the following holidays: March 25th, May 1st, August 15th, October 28th, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Epiphany, Easter Day, Easter Monday, Clean Monday, Holy Spirit Day.

Free admission every Wednesday (optional fee € 1) and International Museum Day (May 18th)

Visit their website for updates to opening hours and special exhibits.