Saturday, December 11, 2010

Athens’ Benaki Museum of Islamic Art

A collection of Islamic rarities presents an intriguing link to Egypt’s Greek DiasporaThe Sept. 11th attacks had one unlikely effect on the art world: A reawakened interest in the West for art and culture emanating from the Middle East. It is a trend seen throughout the West, where significant collections of Islamic and Coptic art are reemerging from years of obscurity after being hidden away in the basements of some of its grandest museums.

Yet despite the current buzz surrounding Islamic art, there has been one museum, quietly tucked away in a nondescript area of Athens, which has been displaying its precious trove from the region for close to a century. The Benaki Museum of Islamic Art is not only one of the oldest institutions devoted to the Middle East in Europe, but also serves as the unlikely link between Egypt and its Greek Diaspora.

Antonis Benakis at his office in the Museum. An 18th Century enamel pendant bearing the portrait of a Qajar princess. Spherical ornament from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, signed by the artist Musli, 1549.

The collection was amassed over decades by Antonis Benakis, the scion of one of Alexandria’s wealthiest and most prominent families, who also founded the museum in 1930. When they relocated back to Greece before the 1952 revolution, Benakis spared his collection from being confiscated by the new regime. Today it is one of the few privately owned collections of Islamic art to have survived that period intact. During World War II and the Nazi occupation of Athens, the then 66 year old Benakis pulled up his sleeves and spent several days packing the museum’s collection for safe hiding.

Housed within two grand neoclassical townhouses that managed to survive the city’s postwar reconstruction, the museum’s grey marble facades and a discreet plaque at the door, reveal nothing of the treasures that lie within its 19th century foil.
Helen Stathatou, sitting in the carved wood reception chamber that she donated to the Benaki Museum. A glazed tile rendering of the Kabba in Mecca.

As visitors pass through the entrance’s large glass doors, they encounter the museum’s first of many oddities: an intricately inlaid marble fountain; dismantled one piece at a time from a 17th century Cairo mansion and shipped to Athens.

It is a reminder that one doesn’t visit the Benaki for the shear volume of its works, which is small in comparison to larger institutions. Instead visitors come to see a collection of Islamic rarities, spanning some 13 centuries of artistic innovation.

Winding ones way through the museum’s collection is akin to taking a geographic trip through time across the Islamic world. 10,000 pieces transport visitors through the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, North Africa, the countries of the Levant, up to Sicily and Spain, Iran, culminating in Central Asia and India.

Antonis Benakis looking into a case of ancient gold jewelry. A copy of the interpretation of the Quran by al-Husein, bearing the hijra date 747. Iran, 1346/7.

Cases filled with intricate Qajar enameled jewelry, some holding the tiny portraits of princesses, recall the splendors of an 18th century Persian court. While another display case holds a collection of delicate Iznik pottery, once displayed at the ‘Exposition d’Art Musulman’ held in Alexandria in 1922. The museum’s rarest piece by far is a large spherical ornament from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Signed by the artist Musli and dated 1549, it was part of the renovation by Suleiman the Magnificent of the mosque in the 16th century.

That a collection, which pays tribute to the beauty and sophistication of Islamic art, should reside in Greece is no coincidence. Situated at the crossroads of East and West, the country has long had a history of interaction with the Arab world. A fact not lost on many of the visitors from the Middle East, who come to this museum of rarities in search of a fascinating glimpse into their own artistic heritage.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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