In late September a new exhibition titled ‘’A Glimpse of Paradise’’ opened at the Rockefeller Museum of Archaeology. The exhibition, organized under the auspices of the Israel Museum, and in collaboration with Yad Ben Zvi, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and East Jerusalem Development Ltd., and the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, pays tribute to a hundred years of Armenian Jerusalem ceramics. We at the Temple Mount Sifting Project are proud and delighted to contribute some of our artifacts to this exhibit.
Armenian Jerusalem Ceramics, well known for their vibrant and magnificent ornamentation, have a strong connection with the Temple Mount. In 1917, shortly after General Allenby’s success in conquering Jerusalem, the British officials embarked on a mission to refurbish some of the Dome of the Rock’s glazed tiles that had weathered over the years. To this effect, Ronald Storrs, the Military Governor of Jerusalem began his search for master ceramicists who could take on the endeavor. It was then that British MP and Diplomat, Sir Mark Sykes, who was interviewing Armenian refugees in Aleppo happened upon a certain David Ohannessian. Ohannessian was the founder of the ““Société Ottomane de Faïence” ceramics workshop (founded in 1907) in Kutahya, Turkey, and had previously designed a renowned tiled room for Sykes in his Sledmere Estate of Yorkshire in 1911-13. Ohannessian was arrested, and he and his family were subsequently deported from Kutahya to Syria in the events of the Armenian Genocide, perpatrated by the Ottoman, and later Young Turk regimes of Turkey. They survived the death march through Anatolia and the deserts of Syria, and ultimately ended their journey in Aleppo, where they once again encountered Sir Sykes.
His prestigious ceramics having been known among the upper echelon of British society, Ohannessian was recommended by Sykes to head the renovations, and arrived in Jerusalem in 1918. David Ohannessian himself personally traveled back to his former home of Kutahya under the auspices and transitory paperwork of the British Military Government, in order to collect the necessary clay and minerals for the Dome of the Rock tiles, found only in his native Anatolia. It was on this trip that Ohannessian invited eight to ten artisans and their families to return to Jerusalem with him. Three of the ten Armenian families which heeded the call and came to the Holy Land remained high-profile names in the world of ceramics: These were ceramicist David Ohannessian, the painter Mgrditch Karkashian, and wheel-potter Nishan Balian, whose workshops still stand in the Armenian Quarter today.
And indeed, In the following three years, they attempted to renew the shrine’s glazed tiles, an endeavour that unfortunately turned out to be ill-fated. While misfortune struck for the Dome of the Rock Project, and the retiling efforts were temporarily abandoned until the 1950’s when the Jordanian Monarchy financed the renewal program, these new Jerusalemites, the Armenians, found a unique opportunity in their newfound home. Eventually, most of the families settled down in Jerusalem where there was a well-known Armenian community of over a thousand years, and established a workshop named “Dome of the Rock Tiles” on the Old City’s Via Dolorosa. This small workshop eventually developed into the famous School of Armenian Jerusalem Ceramics. The School continues the unique and unrivaled ceramic tradition originating in the city of Kütahya until today. Among those great artisans who upheld the traditions of Kütahya, David Ohanessian remained the premier ceramicist of the Old City’s swelling Armenian community. By the end of his career, Ohanessian’s ceramics adorned various historical sites across Turkey, Syria, Egypt, the British Mandate, and were in high demand across all of Europe, revered and cherished across continents. Ohanessian continued to produce ceramic tiles for prestigious sites in the British Mandate, such as the Government House, as well as the Rockefeller Museum, but ultimately relocated to Beirut during the outbreak of the 1948 War of Independence, and died there four years later.
The TMSP wholeheartedly consented when asked to contribute artifacts to the exhibit. These artifacts included multi-coloured glass tesserae and glazed tiles originating on the Dome of the Rock, as well as waste products from their manufacturing site, including wasters, slag and kiln fragments. Representing the TMSP was founder Dr. Gabriel Barkay, as well as co-founder Zachi Dvira, and archaeologist Hagai Klonymus who all attended the inauguration of the exhibition on Tuesday evening. The event had in attendance various high profile individuals such as the representative of the Armenian Patriarch Samuel Aghoyan, Israeli Ambassador to Armenia and Moldova Eli Belotsercovsky, Director of the Israel Museum Ido Bruno, and the curator of the event, Fawzi Ibrahim. These relics, some of which have never been made public and will be presented for the very first time, shed light on the history of Armenian artisans in Jerusalem, and suggest that some of the glazed tiles covering the Dome of the Rock were manufactured in workshops located on the Temple Mount itself.
Special thanks to Sato Maghoulian, who corresponded with P. Moshe Shamah, and the Temple Mount Sifting Project, as well as the Rockefeller Museum, in order to ensure the historical accuracy of the research and narrative in this article. Maghoulian has spent a decade researching and compiling the sources relevant to her grandfather David Ohannessian and the history of Armenian Ceramics, culminating in the book Feast of Ashes: The Life And Art of David Ohannessian. In addition to this, she is a professional flutist, and has extensive experience as an art director, and music coordinator. Her personal site can be found here: http://www.satomoughalian.com/index.php
Additional Reading on the Armenian Ceramics, and the life of David Ohanessian:
- “David Ohanessian 1884-1952” https://museum.imj.org.il/rockefeller/Eng/Ohanessian.html
- “The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem” https://www.ybz.org.il/?CategoryID=1382&ArticleID=3447#.XYx7TS17FE4
- “The Secrets of Armenian Ceramics” https://www.tod.org.il/en/blog-armenians/
- “Jerusalem of Clay: For a Century, Armenian Pottery Has Brought Together Jerusalem’s Jews, Muslims, and Christians” https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/242687/jerusalem-of-clay
- Feast of Ashes– A Biographical Book of Research, Written by Sato Maghoulian, the Granddaughter of David Ohanessian, and is currently the most in-detail document in terms of Armenian Ceramics at this time https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=28630
- “The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem” by Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, who was a part of the A Glimpse of Paradise exhibit, https://www.ybz.org.il/?CategoryID=1382&ArticleID=3447#.XclqPOgzbIU