An Islamic Museum in Athens Dispels Stereotypes

A veiled woman passes in front of an illuminated McDonald's sign in Kuwait City. Overweight boys in djellabas drive race-car simulators in a Dubai video arcade. Syrian girls hurl snowballs at each other on a mountain resort close to Damascus. These images, part of an exhibition by the VII Photo Agency on display in the Benaki Museum of Islamic art in Athens, toy with the West's perceived wisdoms about the Arab world. "I had no idea it snows in Syria," says Hrisanthi Politopoulou, a 52-year-old Greek homemaker visiting the exhibit.

The photo project, "The Modern Arab World" (through Sept. 28), was commissioned by the private Iowa-based Stanley Foundation to help dispel stereotypes. Its exhibition in Athens marks an attempt to educate the Greek public about a region that is geographically proximate and economically intertwined, yet culturally misunderstood by Europe. Alongside Cyprus and Bulgaria, Greece forms a part of the EU's border with Muslim Turkey. Yet Many Greeks remain hostile toward Islam, owing to 400 years of Greece's occupation by the Ottoman Empire, during which Turkey's rulers pressured Greeks to convert to Islam and built hundreds of mosques in the territory, many of which were eventually torn down. Today, 12 percent of the country's work force is non-Greek, and the presence of Muslim immigrants on the streets of Athens is stoking the resentment of Greek workers competing with them in a lean economy.

The exhibition eschews the sensual scenes of Cairo and Damascus conjured by 18th- and 19th-century Orientalist painters in favor of more contemporary pictures of identikit malls and fast-food franchises in teeming cities where haphazard slums lurk in the midst of glittering skyscrapers. "Some of the photos don't look very different from Western Europe," says Yuna Delannoy, 35, a tourist from Belgium, pointing to an image of a Palestinian student wearing a kaffiyeh working at a monitor in a computer lab. "They've played upon the contrast between tradition and modernity."

Since its inception in 2004, the Benaki has served as an enlightened cultural haven in a conservative society. Athens—the seat of one of the most religious countries in Europe—is today the last EU capital without a functioning mosque, yet the Benaki boasts one of the world's finest collections of Islamic art. Housed in a restored five-story villa in the historical Kerameikos district, the collection was amassed by Antonis Benakis, the scion of a wealthy Greek trading family. Benakis's family thrived in 19th-century Egypt but moved back to Greece in the 1920s to escape the upheavals of the conflict between Jews and Arabs.

The permanent collection features more than 8,000 pieces tracing the development of Islamic art over 12 centuries, including ceramics, metalwork, finely wrought gold jewelry, armor, wood carvings, glasswork and textiles. Benakis acquired most of the pieces in Alexandria, Istanbul and Paris in the first decades of the 20th century. Highlights include two carved wooden memorial doors from eighth-century Mesopotamia, a small bronze astrolabe belonging to famed astronomer Ahmad ibn al-Sarraj and a celebrated 16th-century velvet saddle from Bursa. Gaps in the museum's collection—such as Persian ceramics, Ottoman tiles and especially illustrated Islamic manuscripts—are filled in with permanent loans, mainly from London's Victoria and Albert Museum. The Benaki is also approaching Greek and foreign manuscript collectors to convince them to donate their own pieces.

As Greek society evolves into a multicultural melting pot, the Benaki is playing a key role in educating a new generation away from Islamophobia. Teachers usher crowds of schoolchildren through the exhibits. Since its inclusion in tourist guides, the museum has been thronged with foreign visitors surprised to encounter such a sophisticated collection in Orthodox Christian Greece. And it will continue to spread its influence. In November, the Benaki—along with the British Museum, the V&A and a private collection—will join in the opening of a long-awaited Islamic museum in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.