The Benaki Museums

Athens has a renowned Archaeological Museum that holds treasures of ancient Greek culture, but it also has an impressive group of museums started by the Benaki family. The collections started out in a large family house, and the family’s cultural interests seem to have struck a chord in Athens. Expansions were made to the original house to include the numerous additions to the collection donated by other families, and today the collection holds artifacts from the early Neolithic through the founding of the Greek State.

A Greek family of wealth, the Benakis were not longtime Athenians, but Alexandrians. Greeks, English, Lebanese, Turks, and Syrians formed a vibrant polyglot society in 19th century Alexandria, and Antonis Benaki became wealthy working in the cotton industry there. The British takeover of Egypt, the two world wars and the development of Egyptian independence changed everything. The multi-cultural mix of Alexandria became politically precarious, and most, though not all foreigners, left Alexandria either to former home countries, or to Australia, South Africa, and Argentina. Antonis Benaki’s father had been a strong supporter of Greek independence and active in government. The family moved permanently to Athens by 1926. In 1930, Antonis Benaki donated his collection and house to the Greek state.

Today, in addition to the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture near Syntagma Square, there is the Benaki Islamic Museum near Kerameikos, the Benaki Toy Museum in Palaio Faliro, workshops, collections, and homes of several artists (Yianni Pappa, Nikos Hatzikyriakos-Ghikas, Penelope Delta), as well as the home of Patrick Leigh Fermor, writer and Hellenophile, who donated his house in the Peloponnese to the Benaki Museum to be used by researchers and to be open to the public. A recent addition to the Benaki portfolio is Piraeus 138, the Benaki Museum Cultural Center. We visited the two largest museums, the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture, and the Benaki Islamic Museum.

Clockwise from top L: Ancient pottery; Gold leaf crowns (knockoffs are sold on every street corner in the Acropolis area); Detailed embroidery of a ship; Vivid red in Byzantine art

The Benaki Museum of Greek Culture is near Syntagma Square in what was a large family home remodeled to its museum purpose. The collections go from oldest on the ground floor and proceed through ancient history as you go up. The top floor has an educational exhibit spanning ancient history and is presently recommended as the starting spot, with visitors working their way back down and moving back through time.

We saw wonderful things, topped off by an entire room of a 19th century house that was collected from a site that was going to be demolished.

The Benaki Museum of Islamic Culture is a smaller, though full of interesting pieces of art from the entire span of Islamic history, from the 7th century AD to the present. Pottery from Iran to Egypt and glass from the earliest glass-making places caught my eye.

Elaborate jewelry, too.

I was intrigued by the figures painted around the edge of a plate (R). Perhaps it was the monochrome coloring, but it reminded me of the drawings of Marjane Satrapi, author of the graphic novel, Persepolis (which I recommend!).

The Benaki Museum of Islamic Art also has a secret–their cafe. It is lovely, and looks out over the Agora, Filopappos Hill and the Acropolis. Another reason to time your visit to include a coffee break.

The Benaki Museum of Greek Culture is only closed on Tuesdays, while the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art is closed Monday through Wednesday. Check the times before you plan your visit.


Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

3 thoughts on “The Benaki Museums

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: