Behind a green door on Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, the winding Christian pilgrimage route through the Old City that follows the Way of the Cross, is a small room filled with colorful ceramic bowls, tiles, and other other wares. Many of these pieces contain crosses and Biblical scenes popular with the Christian tourists who frequent this area; but there are also plates designed to hold the challah for Jewish Sabbath meals and tiles with Arabic verses from the Koran.
“We make things here from all the local traditions, and we are very proud of that,” said Hagop Karakashian, 50, the locally born manager of this Jerusalem Pottery store, whose grandfather was among the city’s first Armenian ceramics artists.
Although Jerusalem’s Armenian Christians are one of the city’s smallest minority groups, their intricately decorated, hand-painted wares are among the most popular souvenirs purchased by visitors to the city. The tiles made here and in a handful of similar workshops decorate many of Jerusalem’s famous buildings, and are used to mark the names of streets in Hebrew, Arabic, and English throughout the Old City. With the 100th anniversary of the city’s first Armenian pottery shop now approaching, this school of ceramics has come to play an integral part in the city’s cultural landscape.
“We just hope the city stays quiet so we can do our work in peace,” Karakashian added when we spoke in July amid the ongoing tensions and violence following a terrorist attack that killed two Israeli police officers on the Temple Mount. But it is in fact the city’s tumultuous history that created this unique style of ceramics. Jerusalem’s storied Armenian ceramics tradition can be traced back to one of the Middle’s East’s most influential and controversial players: the British diplomat Mark Sykes, who authored a secret 1916 agreement with French officials that would divide up the Middle East along lines that continue to have ramifications today. It was Sykes’s taste for interior design that unintentionally set off a chain of events that ultimately gave a second chance at life for Karakashian’s family and their art work.
When the British military took over Jerusalem from the crumbling Ottoman Empire in 1917, the city’s streets were filthy, buildings were dilapidated, and many of its monuments had fallen into disrepair. The first British military governor of the city, Ronald Storrs, was especially disturbed by the condition of the Dome of the Rock, the 7th century Islamic shrine built on the site long-revered by Jews as former home to the two Temples. The exterior walls, which were covered with thousands of tiles made in Turkey during the 16th century reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, had seen better days.
“The magnificent tiles kept constantly falling off the walls and could frequently be found for sale in the Old City,” Storrs wrote in his diary. He added repair of this shrine to a long list of other improvement projects for the newly-formed Pro-Jerusalem Society, an organization funded by donors abroad to complete public works projects, establish museums, and encourage handicrafts in the city.
One major challenge for the Dome of the Rock project was where to find new tiles. There was no local ceramics industry in Jerusalem at the time, and Turkey, where the original tiles came from, was enemy territory. But then Storrs remembered a bathroom he had once used at a Sykes estate in Yorkshire, England, which was decorated with similar tiles.
“I remembered Mark Sykes’s Armenian friend, David Ohannessian, who had crafted the Persian bathroom in Sledmore, and summoned him from Damascus,” Storrs wrote in his memoirs.
Ohannessian was a leading ceramicist who had completed projects throughout Europe and the Middle East—meeting many dignitaries along the way, including Sykes. He had recently used his wealth and connections abroad to flee his hometown of Kutahya, Turkey, escaping the increasing violence and persecution by Ottoman authorities against the Armenian community. Ohannessian agreed to the work, and briefly returned to Kutahya and brought along with him to Jerusalem two other prominent Armenian artists and their families: Neshan Balian, a potter, and Megerdish Karakashian, a painter and the grandfather of Hagop, the current owner of the Via Dolorosa workshop.
“For my grandfather, this was a good chance to escape the genocide in Armenia,” Hagop said, referring to the Ottoman government’s mass deportation and torture campaign that ultimately killed 1.5 million Armenians during WWI. “This Dome of the Rock project really gave him the chance to live.”
But soon after the Armenian artists set up shop on the Temple Mount, planning to fire their new tiles in the 16th century kilns left near the Dome of the Rock from Suleiman’s renovation project, they struggled to replicate the thickness of the original tiles, made with Turkish materials. The old kilns never worked. Funds for the project quickly dried up. Eventually, the project was abandoned and the workshop closed.
The artists from Kutahya then set up a workshop on the Via Dolorosa, called Dome of the Rock Tiles, in homage to the project they never did. It was from here that they began to leave their mark on the city, producing colorful tiles, mainly with floral designs, for a number of public buildings. Balian and Karakashian eventually left Ohannessian on the Via Dolorosa to establish a new workshop outside the Old City walls on Nablus Road.
Both of these workshops not only continued to produce tiles for public buildings and wares like vases and bowls, but also developed new designs based on their experiences and encounters in the Holy Land. The fusion of the ancient Armenian technique and floral and geometric patterns that had been in their families for generations with local motifs—including images from area mosaics, Biblical landscapes, and Jewish symbols—gave rise to a whole new art form, said Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, a scholar in ceramics at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and curator of several exhibitions of Armenian work.
“They have established something very local,” Shalev-Khalifa said. “It is more fitting to call the works made by these Armenian refugees ‘Jerusalem ceramics,’” rather than Armenian ceramics. The art form has also managed to do what many politicians have not: to appeal to people from all three of the city’s major religions. The tiles can be found in places ranging from the Rockefeller Museum to the American Colony Hotel to the Israeli President’s Residence.
“Even though so many groups in the city are divided from each other, these ceramics are one of the few things embraced by all,” Shalev-Khalifa said. “It’s something that people from all three major religions here feel is special and really represents the local culture.”
Ultimately, the Dome of the Rock was repaired with Turkish tiles in 1962, when it was under Jordanian jurisdiction. But the Armenian ceramics makers remained influential in the city. Although Ohannessian eventually closed his shop and left Jerusalem for Beirut in 1948, the Karakashian and Balian families, who parted ways in the 1960s, both still maintain workshops in the city.
Recent decades have also seen the opening of more workshops, with six now active in and around the Old City. One of those relative newcomers is Garo Sandrouni, a Jerusalem-born Armenian painter who began to work with ceramics when he was in his 20s, and opened a workshop and store in the city’s Armenian quarter in 1983.
“In Jerusalem, 34 years ago is not so long ago,” said Sandrouni, laughing. He decided to switch from canvas painting to ceramics when he realized it had become symbolic of the Armenian community, said Sandrouni, whose father settled in Jerusalem after fleeing the genocide in Turkey. “I fell in love with these ceramics and decided to go in that direction. Not only am I a ceramicist, but I sell also my history, my story,” he said as he sketched a floral design onto a vase on a recent summer morning. “Behind each piece there is a story, and when I explain that story, it gives me pride.” In addition to crafting products and images that appeal to all religious sectors of Jerusalem, the Armenian workshops have also come to employ non-Armenians, Israeli Jews, and Palestinians.
“That is the only way we can survive,” Sandrouni said. “Although I am not so optimistic about the future of this industry.”
Among his and other artists’ worries is the always-expanding industry of cheaper, machine-made knock-offs, which fill most of the city’s souvenir shops. These products are made in factories in the West Bank city of Hebron or in China, and often sell for less than one-fifth the price of the handmade items, making them appealing to tourists.
“The sad thing is they are also marketed as Armenian ceramics,” Sandrouni said. “And, most believe that. Yes, it is a threat to us.” He said the Armenian artists need to come together and set up standards certifying which products are authentic. But, unfortunately, both Sandrouin and Karakashian said, even though their work appeals to a diverse audience, most of the Armenian ceramicists themselves rarely speak with each other.
“There is a lot of jealousy and arguments over the past,” said Sandrouni, whose two brothers were once in the ceramics business with him, but now have their own, separate studios.
Back at Jerusalem Pottery, Karakashian said he has recently begun training his 15-year-old daughter in the craft, determined to keep it alive.
“She is a teenager now, so I am not sure what she will do,” Karakashian said with a smile. “But this pottery has really become a symbol of Jerusalem, and we are very proud of that, and it is important to keep it alive.”
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Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based American journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Associated Press, and other publications.