Private Islamic art collection in Athens

Private Islamic art collection in Athens
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The precious Islamic art collections displayed at the Benaki Museum does not attract the attention it deserves.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, foot traffic in Islamic art sections of museums across the United States and Europe has seen a significant increase as people try to better understand Islam. In Greece, however, this is not the case, says Anna Ballian

ATHENS – Turkish Daily News

 Muslims might not yet have an official place of worship in Athens, but Islamic art has a home.

  In summer 2004 and just in time for the Olympic games hosted by the city, Greece's largest private art museum dedicated a neoclassical four-storey building – located only a short walk from the Acropolis – exclusively to Islamic art.

 The Benaki Museum is a rarity in the region as Islamic art is normally tucked away in a wing of museums around Europe. However, the overwhelmingly large collection that was started by the museum's founder, Antonis Benakis, and his family at the turn of the century grew constantly by acquisitions and Greek donations, and called for a separate space.

 Today the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art boasts 6,000 pieces of art gathered mostly by Greek art collectors, dating as far back as the seventh century, from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt and Turkey.

 Since Sept. 11, 2001, foot traffic in Islamic art sections of museums across the United States and Europe has seen a significant increase as people try to better understand Islam for the sake of inter-faith dialogue. In Greece, says Anna Ballian, curator of the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, this is not the case.  

 The museum does not attract tourists en masse as the Parthenon does next door, and its founders know well it never will. “People aren't exactly lining up at the door,” said Ballian.

 But nor does the museum intend to be a showcase where visitors can come and explore “the other” the “foreigner,” the “Islamic.” Greece has had the advantage of being Eastern and European, Ballian told the Turkish Daily News.

 The museum aims to show the multiplicity of the identities of the region, not dichotomize them. “We are a window to Europe, and have been Eastern historically. We can be both,” Ballian said of Greece and the museum that aims to display art from the region that has left its mark on the country.

 Benakis was the first private collector and museum of the Balkans and the wider region, including Turkey.

 Although it started as a small private collection it turned into a multi-collection of different historic periods and art forms, and received other collections donated by other owners.

 Benakis was part of the Greek diaspora in Alexandria, Egypt where he started collecting art driven by the cosmopolitan internationalism of the upper middle class, and a romanticism toward Greece's past.

 He and his family were just one among a burgeoning Greek elite in Egypt at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century that collected art.


Two floors for Ottoman period

 Two of the floors of the museum are dedicated to Ottoman period art. The pieces that dominate these floors are the İznik porcelains and textiles from Bursa that originate mostly from Benaki's private collection.

 Ballian said that often the İznik porcelains resembling painting styles on porcelain from the island of Rhodes, were thought to be from Rhodes where similar painting styles to İznik were used. “But Benakis recognized them and collected them as Ottoman,” she said.

 These pieces landed in Greece as islanders and merchants made their voyage west to Italy, or east to Istanbul where, after selling their wares, found items that could be sold back in Greece.

 The themes of the İznik pieces were sometimes representations of people, but mostly flowers and tulips. These “portable” objects of the Ottoman period influenced “Christian” art of the period.

 The Central Benaki Museum holds examples of this “Christian” art created under Ottoman rule. Ballian said that soon she hoped to bring this unique collection to Istanbul as it is important for Turks to see the reach of their predecessors' influence and the true marriage of cultures in art.

 Moreover, the collection of Christian art under Ottoman rule is unique in the world.

 When asked if the museum helped to collapse stereotypes, Ballian said, “often you see that younger people who come here don't have biases about Turkey or Arabic nations.” She said there is a large portion of Greeks who visit, whose parents or even themselves have lived in Egypt or other Middle Eastern countries as part of the Greek diaspora, or temporarily for work. These visitors look at the art with particular fondness.

 Children of the generation of temporary workers in the Middle East born there in the 70s want to go back and the museum is a starting point or an inspiration to go East.

 On Wednesdays and weekends the museum organizes story-telling for children with fairy-tales from the Orient.

 “A space dedicated exclusively to Islamic art is something new and extraordinary,” said Ballian. “Greek kids can come and see something that other generations didn't hear and see.”

 The rich historic range and examples of various forms of Islamic art, its colors and representations at the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art are impressive and are sure to dazzle and transport visitors to another time in the shared culture and history of Greece and its region. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 9:00 a.m.- 3:00 p.m. and Wednesdays 9:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.

 Address: Agion Asomaton 22, Keramikos

 Tel: 30 210 325 1311




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