The Benaki Museum competes with the Acropolis Museum and National Museum of Archaeology as one of the top three museums in Athens. It was established in 1930 by wealthy philanthropist Antonis Benakis in his neo-classical family mansion opposite the National Gardens, and he kick-started the collection by donating nearly 40,000 pieces of Byzantine and Islamic art to the museum. Further donations from private collectors over the decades swelled the exhibitions and resulted in the museum being extended several times.
Following a revamp in the early 21st century, the oriental and Islamic art was moved to thesatellite Museum of Islamic Art in Kerameikos and there is also an annexe on Pireos Street in the newly trendy district of Rouf, showcasing all that’s best on the Athens contemporary art scene. The Benaki Museum itself now concentrates solely on Greek history from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 through the formation of the Greek state in 1821 and on to the 1922, when the defeat of the Greek army in the Asia Minor Disaster led to the massacre of thousands of Greeks living in Turkey and the displacement of a million more. Showpieces among the museum’s fine collections are rare 17th-century embroidery from Cyprus, vivid traditional costumes from mainland Greece and weaponry from the independence struggles of 1821.