For decades, the art of Armenian ceramics creation in Jerusalem has

been dominated by two prominent clans, the Balians and Karakashians.

Between them, they have made their inspired creations , based on

motifs dreamed of by their ancestors in their mountainous homeland,

enriched and enhanced by the young blood of modernity.

               Neshan   Balian   Jr,   scion   of   the   Balian   clan,   says   they   has   been   producing   exclusive hand   painted   ceramic   tiles   and   pottery   since   1922,   just   a   few   years   after   his   grandfather landed   in   Jerusalem,   bringing   with   him   the   lore   he   had   acquired   in   the   world-renowned ceramics town of Kutayha in Turkey.      "This makes us one of the oldest-if not the oldest- business in existence in Jerusalem." Neshan   notes   that   the   two   families,   master   potters   and   artists,   were   brought   over   from Kutayha by the British government to renovate the ceramic tiles of the Dome of the Rock.                Before   the   arrival   of   his   grandfather,   the   production   of   decorative   ceramic   tiles   and pottery in the region did not exist at all.                "It   was   Neshan   Balian   with   his   partners   the   Karakashians,   who   established   this   unique form   of   world   famous   art   known   presently   as   the   Armenian   Pottery   of   Jerusalem,"   he adds.             In   the   mid   1960's,   the   two   clans   split   amicably,   with   the   Balian   family   remaining   on   the present premises and continuing the tradition of this unique form of pottery.                The   history   of   the   Armenian   cCeramics   is   full   of   ups   and   downs,   "suffering   and   joy," Neshan recalls.                "I   remember   my   late   father   telling   me   of   stories   from   the   late   40's   where   the   situation was   so   desperate   that   they   used   to   burn   the   wooden   frames   of   the   factory   windows   just to   get   a   kiln   firing.   The   factory   was   destroyed   totally   in   the   1967 Arab-Israeli   war   except for   the   huge   dome   kiln   with   a   full   load   of   fired   ceramics   which   was   sold   and   helped   in   the reconstruction.   Lack   of   raw   materials   in   the   early   30's   and   40's   was   also   a   problem   with homemade   solutions   of   breaking   bottle   glass   and   crushing   it   as   ways   to   prepare   badly needed   glazes.   But   eventually   my   grandfather   and   later   my   father   overcame   these problems and the factory started to prosper."                Neshan's   father,   the   late   Setrak   Balian,   studied   ceramics   in   England   under   Bernard Leach   and   then   came   back   to   Jerusalem   in   the   early   50's   and   established   a   ceramics   brick and   roof   tile   factory   in   Amman,   Jordan,   taking   over   the   Armenian   ceramics   factory   in 1965 after the death of his grandfahter.                "My   grandfather   and   father   were   both   master   potters   in   their   own   right.   His   French- Armenian   born   mother   Marie,   graduate   of   the   Beux   Art   institute   of   Lyon,   is   a   world renowned   ceramic   tile   artist.   Her   ceramic   tile   murals   have   been   exhibited   all   over   the world."             Neshan,   with   both   mechanical   engineering   and   ceramics   engineering   degrees   from Ohio   University   and   Hocking   College   in   Ohio,   has   been   managing   the   factory   since   the passing away of his father in 1996.             "The   present   location   of   our   factory   is   where   the   true   form   of   art   known   as Armenian Ceramics   of   Jerusalem   was   born.   We   are   the   only   studio   in   Jerusalem   producing   our   own ceramic ware and tiles by methods handed over to us by our grandparents and parents. Two   Karakashain   brothers,   Stepan   and   Berge,   and   the   son   Hagop,   produce   their Armenian ceramics, Armenian   pottery   and   tiles   on   the   route   Jesus   took   on   his   way   to   the   cross,   the Via Dolorosa, in the Old City of Jerusalem.                It   was   their   father,   Megerditch   Karakashian,   among   other Armenian   potters,   whom   the British   sought   to   undertake   the   repair   of   the   tiles   covering   the   external   walls   of   the Dome of the Rock.          The   men   settled   in   Jerusalem,   and   continued   practicing   their   traditional   craft   of making glazed pottery, richly colored and decorated with floral and animal designs.          But   the   story   of   Armenian   ceramics   does   not   end   here.   The   Sandrouni   brothers,   along with   a   few   other   enterprising   artists,   are   making   sure   that   they   keep   the   tradition   alive, with their own particular brands.          According   to   Kevork   Sandrouni,   the   youngest   member   of   the   Sandrouni   trio   of   artists (the   others   are   Harout   and   Garo),   the   story   of   Armenian   ceramics   would   have   been   told so   differently   had   it   not   been   for   the   "Pro-Jerusalem   Society".   This   committee,   founded by   Sir   Ronald   Storrs,   the   first   military   governor   and   his   advisor   Charles   Robert   Ashbee, undertook   the   restoration   and   preservation   of   Jerusalem's   historic   sites   during   the   British mandate.                He   notes   that   tor   the   restoration   of   the   centuries   old   glazed   tiles   decorating   the Dome   of   the   Rock,   the   "Society"   located   David   Ohannessian   of   Kutahya,   a   master   ceramist whose   works   enhanced   the   splendour   of   palaces   in   Turkey,   Syria   and   Egypt,   and   were much    in    demand    in    Europe    and    the    Middle    East.    David    Ohannessian    established Jerusalem's   first   Armenian   ceramic   workshop   in   1919.   The   workshop   never   accomplished the restoration project of the Dome of the Rock tiles, he points out.          "However,   it   was   not   long   before   it   started   catering   for   Jerusalem's   big   international   as well   as   the   elite   of   its   local   communities.   In   spite   of   its   short   lived   production,   (1919- 1948),   the   grace   and   beauty   of   Ohannessian's   tiles   changed   the   face   of   the   city   by decorating   its   mansions,   institutions   and   public   places,   and   influenced   Jerusalem's   arts and crafts till this present day and time."                The   Ohannesians   (sadly   now   out   of   business)   will   remain   another   unforgettable episode in the rich history of Armenian art and culture of Jerusalem.
Armenian Jerusalem
This project has been supported by the Gulbenkian philanthropic Foundation, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and members of the worldwide Armenian community. Reproductions of the genealogical documents [domar’s] are courtesy Photo Garo, Jerusalem. Copyright © 2007 Arthur Hagopian
Rockefeller Museum ceramics by David Ohannessian