The Museum of Islāmic Art took us through a climb of four floors of exhibitions, with each floor having a dedicated room to a specific time period. We began on the very first floor which showcased relics and remnants from the 7th – 9th century. As we made our way from one period to another, we realised the subtle and drastic changes in the relics and remnants. One of these such changes included the addition of human figures and facial expressions on everyday items such as embroidery items and kitchen utensils. It was fascinating and quite satisfying to see the intricate patterns and designs that went into the overall look of an item within the first few centuries of Islam. However, as we progressed and made our way to the higher floors (to the exhibitions dedicated to later periods of Islāmic history) we noticed how the effort of geometrical design almost disappeared and this was replaced with images of people and animals. I couldn’t help but think to myself that it was this very intricate artwork that made Islāmic Art what it is today.
As my wife and I eventually reached the third floor (16-17th century) and observed the fine remnants of interior designs, my wife made a very timely point, which actually became the cause of me wanting to write this article. She turned around and remarked, ‘It seems like they focused so much on interior design’. I couldn’t agree more. It seems that much of what we saw, focused heavily on looks and design. Muslims since the emergence of Islam have been profound in expressing themselves through art, geometry and unique designs. What’s more, much of what was designed and produced by them has been maintained and retained. Just take a look at the Alhambra Palace, or the Dome of the Rock or even the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. These places are of course still standing and it is that which attracts the many visitors. However, there are many relics and remnants which have been stripped off their original constructions, or items and utensils which have been either found or discovered by archeologists which have now made their way to museums for the eyes of the curious. This is what makes up a large chunk of Islāmic history; art.
Below are some highlights from our visit:
Floor 1 – 7th – 12th Century
The above is an image of inscribed marble tombstones from 9th century Egypt. Ornamentation of graves is heavily disliked within the Islamic tradition due to many using tombstones and graves as places of worship. The only thing that is necessary to mark a grave is a stone. However, from the above image, one can easily notice that slowly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, many started to ignore this principle and began constructing luxurious mausoleums.
Here is another picture above which showcases jugs, fragments of oil lamps, round clay bread stamps, filters from unglazed jugs and small stucco vessels probably intended as food warmers. All these items come from different places such as 9th century Iraq, 7th-9th century Egypt as well as 10th – 12th century Egypt. Notice how intricate the patterns and designs were on these items which makes you think about how much attention was given in the manufacturing phase.
The items on display above are also mainly from 10th – 12th century Egypt, and are random items from various mosques in Egypt. These range from being decorative and ornamented plaques with Kufic Qur’anic inscriptions to a portable mihrab inscribed with the names of members of the family of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. There are also fragments of an inscribed wooden frieze from a 10th century Egyptian mosque. This particular fragment has inscribed on it a Kufic script Qur’anic verse which happens to be one of the most popular verses of the Qur’an referred to as the “verse of the Throne” (2:255). This was an important verse for early Muslim architects as it became a part of the architectural ornamentation of many religious edifices, such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
Floor 2 – 12th – 16th Century
For me, this was an amazing find. I get quite fascinated finding scientific items as it allows me to see in reality remnants of the rich scientific achievements of previous Muslims. Although this is an ivory quadrant alone, it is part of part of a brass astrolabe (not pictured above), both of which are from 14th century Syria.
The astrolabe was created by the astronomer Ahmad ibn al-Sarraj for Muhammad al-Tanuhi. The inscription records the hijra date of manufacture 729 (1328/9) and bears the names of four later owners. This is the only known example of a universal astrolabe, an invention of Muslim astronomers that constitutes a development of the ancient Greek astrolabe. The quadrant, a simplified version of the astrolabe, bears the signature of Abu Tahir and the hijra dates 741 (1340/1).
Moving on, here we have two chessboards ornamented with ivory and bone pawns and are both from 14th – 17th century Egypt. With the game of chess originating in India, it slowly made its way to the 9th century Persia and onwards to the Arab countries. Many records and manuscripts tell us how popular the game was in these parts of the world as it even became a part of the education system in higher classes, owing to its requirement of high level concentration and strategic thinking.
Floor 3 – 16th – 17th century
Above we have a copy of the interpretation of the Holy Qur’an with annotation by Zamakshari, who was an 11th century Hanafi scholar from Persia. Though he passed away in the 12th century, this picture above showcases a 14th century copy of his original work. For those curious about Zamakshari, he was famously known for his annotations of the Qur’an and also his contribution to the study of the Arabic language.
This one again was another unique find. Prayer mats like these were found in a church in Romania in the early 20th century. It is a triple prayer carpet with double columns and it is of the Transylvanian type belonging to the 17th – 18th century. Around 450 carpets like this were found in churches in Transylvania (Romania).
Floor 4 – 17th – 19th century
Sadly, the fourth and final floor consisted mainly of weaponry items and utensils with drawings of humans and animals. Some were too explicit for me to even take photos of. It just made me think as to how things had changed from the beautiful artistic expression of geometry and inanimate objects to artistic expressions of humans and animals. I feel as though if Islamic Art was unique for one thing, it was for designing without the need to include humans and animals.
I really found it useful the way the museum had set up the floors in accordance to time periods. It’s set in a rather linear format which makes it easy for visitors to keep track of things and thus makes it easy to follow. Other Islāmic museums I have visited tend to have historical items scattered throughout their museums.
Tips For Visiting The Benaki Museum of Islamic Art
As the list above does not mention each and every item in the museum, I would highly recommend you visit when you get a chance. Most people go to Athens for the notable site of the Acropolis and miss out on places like this.
If you are interested in visiting, here is some important information to bear in mind:
Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – 10.00 – 18.00
Closed on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
Free audio guides are available using QR codes scattered throughout the museum. Available languages are Greek, English, French, Spanish, Russian and Chinese.
Full Admission: €9
Reduced Admission: €7
- Persons over 65
- Members of Hellenic Chamber of Fine Arts
- Hellenic Ministry of Culture card holders
- European Youth Card holders
Free Admission For The Below:
- Members of Benaki Museum
- Unemployment Card holders
- Persons under 22
- For disabled persons
- ICOM members
- Friends of the Benaki Museum
Journalist Admission Fee: €1 (you may need to show ID)
026, 027, 031, 035, 049, 731, 811, 812, 815, 820, 836, 838, 839, 851, 856, 865, 914, Α16, Β18, Γ16, Ε63
Take METRO line 3 to MONASTIRAKI station. From there, it is an 8 minute walk to the museum.