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  • Gil Zohar

From Iznik to Jerusalem – and now in Beersheva


Beersheva’s new Negev Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures opened its second exhibition last Monday (Dec. 14, 2015). Called “From Iznik to Jerusalem: A Cross-Cultural Meeting”, the exhibition examines the pottery once produced by Armenian ceramic artists in Iznik, Turkey (formerly known in Greek as Nicea) in western Anatolia, and its connection to Far Eastern ceramics from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to the present. While the exhibition includes historic artifacts from both 16thcentury Turkey and contemporary ceramics from Communist China, it is the story of the three Armenian families who relocated their pottery industry to British-ruled Jerusalem a century ago that is most familiar to readers of this newspaper.

In 1918 in the aftermath of World War I, Sir Ronald Storrs – a megalomaniac in the grand tradition of European imperialism who fancied himself “the first military governor of Jerusalem since Pontius Pilate” – founded the Pro-Jerusalem Society to prettify the Holy City as befitting a newly-acquired British possession. Storrs ordered the demolition of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s clock tower and the Bezalel boutique, both fin de siècle accretions to the 16th century Ottoman walls located just outside the Jaffa Gate.

Turning his attention to the dilapidated Islamic monuments on the Haram ash-Sharif, Storrs and his associate Charles Robert Ashbee – an architect and leading designer of Britain’s Arts and Crafts Movement – invited David Ohannessian to come to Jerusalem to discuss restoring the tiles of the Dome of the Rock. No suitable ceramicists could be found in Palestine at the time.

Storrs’ invitation came as the Armenian world was shattered by the Ottoman genocide that claimed 1.5 million lives in 1915. While the vast majority of victims lived in the Armenian heartland around Lake Van and Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey, the Armenian population of Ohannessian’s hometown of Kütahya near Iznik in western Turkey was also caught up in the murderous Ottoman dragnet. Ohannessian and his wife Victoria narrowly survived the death march from Kütahya.

Ohannessian contracted typhus during the deportation and nearly died, recounts his grandson Sato Moughalian. The two refugees, living in Damascus, accepted Storrs’ 1918 invitation to visit Jerusalem not only to examine the possible restoration project at the Muslim shrine but also in fulfillment of a vow that they had made to come on pilgrimage to the Holy City to give thanks for their survival.

In 1919 the Ohannessians were joined in Jerusalem by the Balians and Karakashians – fellow Armenian ceramicists from Kütahya. The three families set up the Dome of the Rock Tiles workshop together, drawing inspiration from the wall tile designs from Iznik that Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566) used to refurbish the shrine. But Storrs was unable to raise the necessary funds to complete the Dome of the Rock restoration. Out of work and unwilling to return to blood-soaked Turkey, the three families began producing ceramic wares and tiles to sell.

Their kiln and atelier – originally on Mount Moriah, and then later on the Via Dolorosa – produced a large variety of ceramic works. Their art is found across Mandate-era Jerusalem including commercial buildings on Jaffa Road, villas in Talbiye and the Greek Colony, the American Colony Hotel, the St. John’s Hospital (today the Mount Zion Hotel), the Rockefeller Museum and St. Andrew’s Scottish Church, as well as the city’s trilingual street-name signs.

In 1922, Neshan Balian and Megerdish 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. It was there that they created a uniquely Jerusalem art form based on a decorative language combining traditional Kütahyan Armenian ceramics and local elements.

Their design repertoire was rooted in the traditional motifs of Iznik (carnations, tulips, almond blossoms and saz leaves) and Kütahya (white or blue background with discretely outlines images), and included themes from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

They were particularly inspired by two mosaic pavements in Palestine: the 5th or 6th century Bird Mosaic in the Armenian mortuary chapel north of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate discovered in 1894 depicting ducks, peacocks, storks, an eagle and other birds all framed by vines; and the newly-excavated 8th century Ummayyad mosaic at Khirbat al-Mafjar (Hisham’s Palace) north of Jericho depicting a lion attacking a gazelle under a fruit tree while two other gazelles continue grazing.

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, completed in 1963, was three rectangular tile pictures in the center of which are arched niches enclosed behind latticework doors for the facade of St. James Cathedral in the Old City’s Armenian Quarter.

When the second generation of the Balians and Karakashians separated in 1964, they divided the traditional patterns which were property of their joint workshop. The following year the Karakashian family relocated to the Old City, where they opened the Jerusalem Old City studio on the Via Dolorosa (between al-Wad and Khan az-Zeit) where it remains to this day. The Karakashian studio's main designs are arabesques, stylized birds, flowers, grapevines, gazelles, fish and biblical scenes, painted on ceramic vessels and tiles not manufactured by the family.

The Balian studio, called Palestinian Pottery, is still located at 14 Nablus Road (across from the American Consulate), and continues to both create pottery and paint it.

Also of note is the Sandrouni Workshop and showroom, operated by George and Dorin Sandrouni, just inside the Old City’s New Gate on Les Freres Street.

All of these families continue a centuries-old ceramic tradition. Designs begin as drawings on paper which are then perforated so copyists can transfer the pattern to pottery. Connecting the dots, artisans then paint the outlines in black, and fill in the spaces with colored glazes. The pots are then dipped in glaze and fired a second time.

Fame quickly came for Jerusalem’s new ceramic artistry that grew out of the traditions of Kütahya and Iznik. David Ohannessian was honored for his work in 1926 with a Gold Medal at the Wembley Exhibition in London, in 1931 at l’Exposition coloniale in Paris, and in 1933 at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Ohannessian continued creating tiles for buildings across Jerusalem until the 1948 Nakba when he fled to Beirut, and later to Cairo. Returning to Lebanon, he died there in 1952 while working for the art department of the American University in Beirut where he was establishing a ceramics studio.

Ohannessian wasn’t the only Jerusalem Armenian ceramicist whose genius has been honored over the years. In 1992 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. mounted a six-month show, called Views of Paradise, that included more than 20 wall-size panels by Marie Balian – the wife of Neshan Balian’s son Setrak – which presented the artist’s conception of a divine garden. The exhibition was the largest the Smithsonian had ever devoted to contemporary Middle Eastern art.

Born in Lyon, France to a family which had escaped the Armenian genocide, Marie studied at Paris’ l’Académie des Beaux-Arts. In 1953, she met her distant cousin Setrak on his way to study ceramic engineering in England. They fell in love, and the following year married in Bethlehem – then controlled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Marie Balian’s work went on to be exhibited at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Boston, Massachusetts, and at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv. In 1986 she created a 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 Deut. 8:8). Her mural “A Glimpse of Paradise” was installed on Koresh Street in downtown Jerusalem in 2004 as a gift to the city where hundreds of Armenians found refuge from the horrors of the Ottoman genocide.

Viewing the Negev Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures' new exhibition, one is reminded that the story of Jerusalem’s Armenian ceramicists bridges the Middle East conflict. In 1995 Aramco World, based in Saudi Arabia, published Jane M. Friedman’s “The Gardens of Marie Balian” while in 2003 Israel issued a postage stamp honoring the Ohannessians, Balians and Karakashians. That history is recounted by Tel Aviv University art professor Nurith Kenaan-Kedar in her study, The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem: Three Generations 1919-2003, published by Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi and the Eretz Israel Museum in 2003.

The Negev Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures is located at 60 Haatzmaut Street in Beersheva’s Old City. The exhibition “From Iznik to Jerusalem: A Cross-Cultural Meeting” will be on display until September. For more information see www.ine-museum.org.il.

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