Nestled on a quiet street corner on the edge of the Kerameikos neighborhood, a relatively clean, four-story building devoid of street art rises up behind a row of orange trees with a subtle air of importance. The Benaki Museum of Islamic Art houses a stunning collection of artifacts dating from the 8th – 19th centuries CE and spanning three, thoughtfully laid-out floors. Its breezy rooftop boasts a colorfully-tiled cafe and a terrace offering sweeping views of the Acropolis, Philopappos Hill, and the Kerameikos cemetery.
I visited the museum years ago and always remembered enjoying its smaller but rich collection, so I wanted to share it with Joe. The culture, history and stories surrounding the rise of Islam and the many conquests of its leaders are related in careful, unbiased detail. On our visit, we traced the development of ceramics from techniques meant to mimic the appearance of metal to the bright turquoise, blue, red and green floral motifs of the 17th century. Many deeply carved wooden doors and wall panels survived from as early as the 8th and 9th centuries, some even preserving traces of gilding or sections of bone inlay. Surprisingly delicate gold and gem-encrusted jewelry competed for our attention with dazzlingly inlaid swords, pistols and tools. An entire reception room from a villa in Egypt, paved with precisely cut, different colored, geometric stone tiles, was reconstructed complete with lattice-work windows and shimmering tapestries.
As incredible – and beautiful – as all these pieces undeniably are, one temporary display made the deepest impression on both Joe and me. As a tribute to, and indeed a reminder of, the refugee crisis sweeping west from Syria and the Middle East, a small, embroidered cloth tent was hung over a raised platform shaped like a bed in the middle of the 2nd floor gallery. We saw, upon closer inspection, that written letters were displayed on the bed inside the tent. One described a boy and his father being run over repeatedly by a tank; a second told of a teenager forced to enlist in the army so that the government would renew his father’s ID card, thus allowing the father to return to his home country.
A young woman employee noticed us reading the letters, and asked if we wanted to know more about the installation. As it turns out, a woman artist created the “bed tent” as part of the Documenta 14 project to represent the subjects and stories of the letters through art: one of the images recalls a man’s story about his wife, now lost to him, whom he describes as a mermaid in the sea, while another illustrates the legend of the Peacock bird described in a different tale. These bed tents were used in old, one-room houses on the island of Rhodes to separate the bed area from the rest of the home and protect/give privacy to the couple. Our guide suggested that the bed tent served to protect the stories held within. An inscription on the base states, in Greek, “But the memory of them [the refugees] remains.”
Greek history and culture is overlaid and infused with the tradition of philoxenia or hospitality; when a stranger knocks on your door, you’re supposed to welcome him, feed him, make him comfortable, and only then ask him to tell his story. This small, struggling country has received so many refugees over the last few years during a time when its people and economy are still mired in and recovering from a terrible financial crisis. Clearly, some Greeks are showing huge amounts of empathy and support for these refugees and their typically horrific, unimaginable stories, and I truly admire the Benaki museum for showcasing that support front and center. The bed tent and its stories reminded us that the poor, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free must indeed never be shunned or forgotten.