Jerusalem Armenian Ceramics

Walking the streets of the Old City your first introduction to Armenian ceramics may be the tiles designed by Mr. Karakashian that display the names of streets in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Please note that much of the painted pottery that you see in the souvenir shops in the Arab market is done in Palestinian workshops in Hebron.

The Armenian community in Jerusalem goes back to the 5th century and in the Old City they live primarily in one of the 4 quarters, a walled neighborhood within the walls to the right from Jaffa gate called the Armenian quarter. Their religious center is the Cathedral of St. James that goes back to the 12th century. The Crusader King Baldwin II married the Armenian princess Morphia who bore him 4 daughters, the eldest, Melisende was married to Fulk, Count of Anjou who was King of Jerusalem and ruled in her own right from 1129-1161. She is buried in the Tomb of Mary in the Kidron valley. From at least the 17th century numerous ceramic tiles by Armenian artists from Kutahya and Iznik were sent as gifts to the Cathedral and  the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

After the British defeated the Turks, Ronald Storrs was the military governor of Jerusalem and one of the projects was to repair the 16th century ceramic tiles of the Dome of the Rock. David Ohannessian who had fled from the city of Kutahya, Turkey to Jerusalem and was known to Mark Sykes was recommended to Storrs. Ohannessian set up a workshop first on the Haram el Sharif and then later on the Via Dolorosa. Although the project fell through due to lack of funds he started producing ceramic wares and tiles to sell. An Armenian told me that the Muslims didn’t allow the Armenians who are Christian to work on the building.

Many recognize David Ohannessian as the founder of local Armenian ceramics based on the Iznik tradition and a bridge between the ceramic artistry of Turkey and what was to be developed later in Jerusalem. Ohannessian created tiles for buildings in Jerusalem until 1948 when he left for Beirut. You can see examples of these tiles at the Rockefeller museum and in my neighborhood, on the facade of originally Christian-Arab buildings, at 25 Emeq Refaim (I lead a tour of the German Colony that includes the Armenian story in the fascinating history of the German Templars) and next door to my house, at 24 Hazefira. Be on the lookout for other examples as you explore the city, buildings on Jaffa Road, in Talbiye, American Colony Hotel, St. John’s hospital (today the Mount Zion Hotel), Scottish Church of St. Andrew.

In 1922 Balian and Karakashian opened their own workshop at 14 Nablus Road where the families worked and lived for more than 40 years. Ballian was the master potter and Karakashian the painter artist and they passed on their skills and traditional craft to the next generation. It was here that the transformative process took traditional Kutahyan Armenian ceramics and created a uniquely Jerusalem pottery, the introduction of an art form that had not previously existed  in the city. It is a major contribution to decorative art, creating an artistic language that combines Eastern and local elements.

Their repertoire of forms was grounded in the traditional designs of Iznik (carnations, tulips, almond blossoms and saz leaves) and Kutahya (white or blue background with discretely outlines images) and included themes from the Bible. Two mosaic pavements in particular seems to have inspired them: the 6th century Bird Mosaic in the Armenian chapel and an Umayyad mosaic from the 8th century at Khirbat al-Mafjar (Hisham Palace) near Jericho. As they worked the two artists created new forms of their own inspired by local sources. Their first major project was a series of tile panels for the walls of the courtyard where the Patriarchs are buried in the Armenian Cemetery on Mount Zion. Their last work together done in 1963 were three rectangular tile pictures in the center of which are arched niches enclosed behind latticework doors for the facade of the Cathedral.

The designs were created by the master painter as drawings on paper. The paper design would be perforated along the lines so that the copyists could transfer them to the ceramics. The copyist-artisans would then paint the outlines in black and then colored glazes would be painted onto the ceramic. When the Balians and Karakashians separated in 1964, the traditional patterns, property of the joint workshop were divided between them.

In 1965 the Karakashian family moved to live and work in the Old City, where they created a studio, “Jerusalem Old City” on the Via Dolorosa between El Wad and Khan El Zeit (recently they moved to 3 Greek Orthodox Patriarchate Street in the Christian quarter). The main designs are those of arabesques, various bird designs, flowers, grapevines, a fawn, fish and biblical scenes on ceramic vessels and tiles.

The Balian studio, called Palestinian Pottery, is still at the original 14 Nablus Rd location.

The creative force behind the Balian workshop was Marie Balian, who had studied painting in Lyon, France. One outstanding example is her dialogue with the images of the tree, gazelles and lion from the Hisham Palace painted in various combinations. By the early 1980s Marie Balian was working on larger compositions of many tiles, as if they were monumental canvases.

In 1986 she created a multi-tile triptych for the “Sukkoth patio” of the President of Israel’s residence which included pomegranates, date palms and grapevines (from the seven species that grow in the Land of Israel).

For an excellent book on the subject check out
Kenaan-Kedar, Nurith, The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem: Three Generations 1919-2003, Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Jerusalem, Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv, 2003.  ISBN 965-217-217-0

Sato Moughalian, the grand-daughter of David Ohannessian published a book in 2019 about his life and art, Feast of Ashes.


6 thoughts on “Jerusalem Armenian Ceramics

  1. Sato Moughalian

    Fascinating post–I would like to offer a few corrections and amendments however. David Ohannessian (my grandfather) left Jerusalem in 1948 for Beirut. Subsequently he went to Cairo, then back to Beirut (not the United States as mentioned above). He was working for the art department of the American University in Beirut, helping them to try and establish a ceramics studio at the time he died, in December of 1952. He is generally recognized as the founder of the Jerusalem Pottery tradition, linking, as you mention above, the Kutahya-Iznik school of ceramics with the new tradition that he, along with the Balians and Karakashians helped establish in Jerusalem.

    David Ohannessian was invited, by C.R. Ashbee and the Pro-Jerusalem Committee, to come to Jerusalem in 1918 to investigate the possibility of doing restoration work on the tiles of the Dome of the Rock. At that time, he was living in exile in Damascus, having narrowly survived his and his family’s deportation from Kutahya in 1915. He and his wife Victoria accepted this invitation to visit Jerusalem in 1918 to discuss and research the possibility of the restoration work, but also in fulfillment of a vow that they had made to visit the Holy City to give thanks for their survival. Contrary to some other writings on the web, the deportation march was primarily made on foot, with only a donkey cart for part of the journey. My grandfather contracted typhus during the trip and nearly died.

    The Ohannessians, Balians and Karakashians moved to Jerusalem in 1919, and set up a workshop, working together. The Balians and Karakashians departed the Dome of the Rock workshop (that was the name of the workshop that David Ohannessian had founded in 1919-20) in 1922 to establish a new joint workshop together. The Dome of the Rock Tiles workshop produced a very large variety of ceramic works of all sorts including major installations at a number of sites in Jerusalem including the Rockefeller museum, and which were sold in many countries throughout the world. In addition, David Ohannessian was honored for his work in 1926 with a Gold Medal at the Wembley Exhibition in London, in 1931 at the Colonial Exhibition in Paris, and in 1933 exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago.

    I hope that readers of this site will visit and patronize the shops that the Balian and Karakashian families still operate today and see how this original and beautiful tradition has passed on into our time.

  2. Sato Moughalian

    PS I would say that each of the three Armenian families made their own contribution to the creation of a unique style of Jerusalem pottery. Their styles were very different, but they are all uniquely recognized. The Jerusalem works of Ohannessian that come up for auction are highly valued.

  3. Shmuel Browns Post author

    Sato thank you for your comment.
    Wow, David Ohannessian’s grand-daughter, I am honored.
    Have you visited Jerusalem and had the opportunity to see the many examples of Armenian ceramics?
    Blessings from Jerusalem.

    1. Sato Moughalian

      Hello Shmuel, I hope all goes very well with you. Just wanted to let you know that my biography of David Ohannessian was published last April by Stanford University Press. It is the result of a decade of archival research and travel to all the places my grandfather lived and worked and is widely available now, at the Educational Bookstore [at the American Colony Hotel, a phenomenal collection of books and photographs] in Jerusalem, and on Amazon, as a hardcover, and in Kindle, Kobo and other ebook formats. The book is called Feast of Ashes: The Life and Art of David Ohannessian. It contains hundreds of endnotes and I hope it will finally help clear up all the historical questions around the founding of Armenian Jerusalem ceramics. Thank you, Sato

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