The Glories of Greece in Athens’ Benaki Museum

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Benaki Museum, Μουσείο Μπενάκη, Athens, Greece

In a beautiful white neo-classical house near the Greek Parliament and government offices, there lies a vast collection of beautiful and fascinating objects which show off the glory of Greek life through the ages.  This is not a state museum, underfunded and showing the need for investment, but a fine example of what all the museums in the city could be like, if they had the money.

The Benaki Museum dates from 1930, and was established by Antonis Benakis in memory of his father, Emmanuel, in the family mansion.  Papa Benakis was a successful businessman and politician who made his fortune in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, in the cotton industry.  He served as a minister of Agriculture and Industry as well as becoming mayor of Athens in 1914.  He was generous with his money, donating to causes that helped refugees of the Greco-Turkish war and Red Cross nurses, among others.

Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece

Since its reopening after the renovations in 2000, this lovely neo-classical building has concentrated on Greek culture through the ages.  The Benaki’s collection of Islamic art, Chinese porcelain etc. are now spread across six museums.  Now the old Benaki is also known as the Museum of Greek Culture.

Naturally Benaki was the main force behind the museum, and worked to ensure its financial security.  But what is interesting is the fact that the Greek populace got on board with the project and donated family heirlooms, manuscripts… all sorts of personal objects that help to tell the Greek story.  So really, it’s kind of like a super classy community museum.  And it’s all so beautifully done that even though I was exhausted from a full day of sight-seeing, I just couldn’t stop walking round to see what else was around the corner.

Unfortunately, a whole bunch of my photographs have disappeared, which is incredibly upsetting (thanks iCloud – good job of keeping them safe) and so this is a condensed version of what was on show.  They had more embroidered fabrics, more beautiful costumes and some very interesting drawings of the Parthenon through the ages.

The Ancient World

An extremely fine collection of ancient Greek objects from the civilisation’s earliest traces gives you a quick overview of the main artistic trends in different eras and areas.  You then get to see how things changed through to the Classical and Roman periods – where you get some amazing golden objects – and on to some exceptional Coptic fabrics from Egypt.

Embroidery & Clothes

As someone who dabbles in embroidery, I am very drawn to looking at the patterns created by the women of the past.  What I find striking is the beautiful use of colour in different parts of the world, as well as the fact that there is a certain similarity in the patterns and types of themes.  The ones on show at the Benaki had certain similarities with Turkish embroidery – which wasn’t surprising, considering the inter-relations between the two cultures – but there were more full figural depictions than you usually get in Ottoman fabrics, where flowers are the most common motif.

Religion and Icons

I must admit I was starting to wane a little by the time we saw the icons.  However, there were some wonderful examples on show and there were other objects relating to religion which were also beautiful – like the 13th century embroidery of Christ from Constantinople.

Objects from Everyday Life

It’s always interesting to see the sort of everyday objects that are vital to those who live or work in particular environments, but which are baffling to everyone else.  I was also drawn to the various amulets, in the form of houses and figures – and in fact we are now proud owners of a replica of the little three storey house to protect our home – with an added evil-eye for extra good luck!

Independent Greece

The story of Greece’s hard fought independence from the Ottomans is on display in rooms at the top of the museum.  It then turns into a story about the newly liberated country, its king, its reassertion of its culture and identity…

And there are some stunning costumes that I wanted to steal and wear for the rest of my life.

So In Summary

The rich collection of the Benaki is truly astounding – and seems especially incredible when you consider just how many remarkable objects are on show in other places in Athens.  What makes this place special, though, is the fact that it displays the glorious diversity of Greek life in its different regions – I particularly loved the beautiful clothes on show.  And I loved the embroidery.  And the icons.  And the ancient stuff…

Further Information

The Benaki Museums have a slick website with plenty of information in English about what they have in each of their properties:

The museum is open until midnight on Thursdays – yes, you saw right, midnight.  Thursday is also the day to go, because it’s free.  Yes.  That is awesome.

How To Get There

The museum is on a major thoroughfare: public transport information is available here:


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