From Kutahya to Al-Quds

The Birth of the Armenian Ceramics Trade in Jerusalem
contribution by Sato Moughalian

[1] The Dome of the Rock (detail), c. 1900-1920, showing part of the then lead-covered dome and the patchwork of repaired and missing tiles. Photo credit: American Colony (Jerusalem) Photo Dept.; Matson Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 

As we browse souks and shops and walk along cobbled streets in the Old City of Jerusalem, brilliantly glazed tiles and plates catch the light and beckon our attention. These charming and ubiquitous wares, known as “Armenian pottery,” [Fig. 2] are now an icon of the Holy City, colorful and reminiscent of an ancient time, much like the vaulted buildings and arched passageways contained within the medieval enceinte. And if we enter one of the artisanal ceramics studios in the Armenian Quarter, the Via Dolorosa, or on Nablus Road, we might learn that this art originated in northwest Ottoman Anatolia, in a town called Kutahya, where Armenian craftsmen had produced ceramics since at least the fifteenth century. 

[2] A rich array of work by members of one of Jerusalem’s current leading Armenian ceramist families. Photo credit: Armenian Sandrouni Ceramics Gallery, 87 Armenian Patriarchate Road, Old City, Jerusalem.

How did this art come to be so deeply integrated into the fabric of Jerusalem?

The answer to this question lies at the intersection of the Qubbat al-Sakhra (Dome of the Rock) [Fig. 3], the Ottoman ceramist David Ohannessian of Kutahya, the Armenian genocide, and the aspirations of a group of Oxbridge-educated British military administrators to restore the ravaged city in the wake of the Great War.

[3] The Dome of the Rock on the Haram al-Sharif, Jerusalem. The current gilded dome was a 1992 gift from King Hussein of Jordan. Photo by author, July, 2013.

On a crisp, clear December 11, 1917, British General Edmund Allenby, in a famous gesture of humility, dismounted his horse and formally entered the Old City’s Jaffa Gate on foot. The ceremony marked the end of four centuries of Ottoman rule in Jerusalem. 

Conditions awaiting the incoming British administrators were dire. The new Military Governor, Ronald Storrs, reported, “The most urgent problem is of course food. The city has been on starvation rations for three years, and is now cut off, not only—as throughout the War—from revenues accruing from the pious and curious and the corn-ships of Odessa, but—since the Turks left—from the vital grain districts of Salt and Kerak beyond the Jordan…” [Storrs; 291] Rotting animal carcasses, rusted sardine tins, and rubble from collapsed structures littered the streets. Storrs immediately set out to obtain wheat from abroad and to impose sanitary measures against the malaria, typhus, dysentery, and cholera that had felled thousands of Palestinians during the war years. But he also recognized another crucial need: to rebuild the physical city and restore Jerusalem as a hospitable destination for pilgrims, tourists, and its own permanent residents.

The multilingual governor, like a number of his colleagues in the British Military Administration, had read Greek, Latin, ancient history, classical art, and archaeology at Cambridge, and was deeply attuned to the needs of historic preservation. Storrs recruited designers, architects, and engineers, as well as leaders of the local Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities. In September 1918, this group of individuals founded the Pro-Jerusalem Society; its purpose was to oversee town planning and rebuilding and to protect the district’s many precious antiquities. The Military Governor understood that Jerusalem’s large Muslim community did not greet his presence with enthusiasm. The new committee was an attempt to form “a reunion round one table of differing, and very often actively discordant, elements bound together here by their common love for the Holy City.” [Ashbee, Pro-Jerusalem; v-vi]

Among the major challenges identified by the new British administration was the repair and restoration of the holy sites, particularly the Dome of the Rock[see Fig. 1] Built by Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan in 691 C.E. on the elevated platform of the Haram al-Sharif, the Ummayad-era building formed the most recognizable silhouette on the landscape of Jerusalem. By 1918, the lead-covered dome of the Islamic shrine was leaking in at least three places, and the internal supports were “insect-infested and decayed timbers.” [Yavuz; 160] Fallen or pilfered tiles turned up for sale in antique shops. 

During the reign of Sultan Süleyman I (r.1520-66), the shrine’s outer covering of mosaic work was replaced with polychrome underglaze, cuerda seca, and cut tiles set in a thick bed of plaster mixed with marble dust. Jerusalem’s weather ranged from extreme heat to cold, with hail, occasional snowstorms, and earthquakes taking a severe toll on exterior surfaces and making periodic repairs of the tile revetment obligatory. Palestine’s geological environment lacked many of the characteristic clays and other minerals necessary to match the original tile work. In the centuries following the recladding of the exterior, materials were imported along with workers—among them, Greeks, Armenians, and Persians—who patched and replaced tiles and subsequently returned to their home regions.   

“Tiles have decayed in the past, and tiles will decay in the future… The Dome of the Rock is not merely a building of archaeological interest, but a symbol of something very much alive…so long as it fulfills the functions it has fulfilled for 1,200 years, so long must its skin be continually renewed in some manner or another, by marble or mosaic, by skin or by cement,” wrote Ernest T. Richmond, the consulting architect who arrived in Jerusalem at General Allenby’s invitation in early 1918.  “Is the method adopted in the sixteenth century of decorating the outer walls of this building with glazed tiles to be continued in the future, or is that system to be abandoned?” Richmond continued, “If a school of workers could be established in Jerusalem it might not only prove of advantage to the Dome of the Rock, but also form a centre for the revival of activity in many other parts of the Near and Middle East.” [Ashbee, Pro-Jerusalem; 8-9]

[4] Bethlehem mother-of-pearl carvers (detail of American Colony Photograph), from Report by Mr. C. R. Ashbee on the Arts and Crafts of Jerusalem and district (1918). Courtesy of Getty Research Institute

Charles Robert Ashbee, a designer and architect associated with William Morris and the British Arts and Crafts movement, echoed Richmond’s sentiment. In the summer of 1918, Storrs invited Ashbee to Jerusalem to conduct a survey of traditional arts and to consider how the Old City might best be preserved. Ashbee had been teaching at the Sultania Training College in Cairo.  In Egypt, he observed the arts of metalwork, weaving, and instrument making still active. His eventual appointment as Civic Advisor and Secretary of the Pro-Jerusalem Society, would allow him to influence the aesthetics of new building work. But he also hoped to introduce or revive glassblowing, weaving, and tile making as resident industries; those trades could provide employment for local artisans [Fig. 4] as well as the growing crowds of impoverished refugees in the city. In Jerusalem, Ashbee could continue to pursue the Arts and Crafts ideal of making handcrafted works to the highest possible pre-industrial standard. 

Colonel Sir Mark Sykes, the British diplomat, MP, and close friend of Ronald Storrs, was the connecting thread between the Pro-Jerusalem Society and David Ohannessian, an acknowledged master of the Kutahya çini (tile) art and an expert in historical restorations. 

In May 1911, the Sykes family’s manor in Yorkshire was nearly destroyed in a catastrophic fire. Sykes had traveled widely in Anatolia, and as he rebuilt his home—Sledmere House—he decided to add an opulent tiled “Turkish Room” as a testament to his love for the region. He had heard that a group of potters was reviving the sixteenth-century techniques and on his next diplomatic trip to Ottoman lands, he traveled to Kutahya to investigate. Sykes found it to be a “town of mud and ruins…save one little spark of life. Kutahia for all time, had been famous for its clay and pottery…there came to it Armenians from Persia, artists of cunning and taste, and there grew up a great industry, with the result that the mausoleums and mosques of Brusa and Constantinople still blaze with glorious glazed colours set in wonderful orders and designs” [Sykes; 521]. 

In fact, it may have been the need to restore some of those great tiled monuments from earlier eras that contributed to the late nineteenth-century revitalization of court-style tile production in Kutahya. As the Iznik ceramic industry declined from its mid-sixteenth-century peak into the seventeenth century, Kutahya (about 100 miles south of Iznik), [Fig. 5] with its largely Armenian artisans and proximity to sources of the necessary minerals, had continued to produce cups and other tableware and pottery, as well as original and replacement tiles for restorations. (The extensive 1718-19 tile commission for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, ultimately installed in the Armenian Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem, is a notable example.)

[5] Map of Northwest Anatolia. Map made with Google Earth Pro, 2015.

When Sykes arrived in Kutahya in the autumn of 1911, three major ceramics workshops were engaged in a whirlwind of activity—exporting tiles and pottery to Europe, creating monumental installations for public and private buildings, and performing restorations of important historical sites throughout the Ottoman world. Often, the ateliers cooperated in the fulfillment of large commissions. The great ustas (masters) of that era were Mehmet Emin, owner of the Fabrique de Faïence à Kutahia; the brothers Garabed and Harutyun Minassian, who jointly directed a studio; and David Ohannessian, who had opened his own establishment in 1907, the Société Ottoman de Faïence. [Fig. 6] Sykes wrote, “By painful process, without chemists or knowledge, these men set out to do what their ancestors had done. By slow degrees, they re-discovered colour after colour and process after process, until at last they were able to imitate, at first distantly, and then more closely, the work that had been done in the past.” [Sykes; 519]

[6] A 1909 photo of Ohannessian and Minassian pottery displayed
at the Bursa Trade Fair. The following year, Ohannessian’s atelier
won a gold medal. Photo credit: Tʻēodik. Amēnun taretsʻuytsʻě.
 Halēp [Syria]: Kilikia, 2006. Volume 13, page 224

Shortly before the 1908 revolution, leading Ottoman architects, including Ahmet Kemalettin and Vedat Tek, had begun to develop a new Turkish nationalist style with nostalgic allusions to sixteenth-century architectural elements. Tile work figured prominently in the new construction. The Kutahya workshops received commissions for large projects including the Sirkeci Post Office (Tek; completed 1909; tile work by Emin and Ohannessian); the Türbe of Sultan Reşad V (Kemalettin; completed 1913-14; tile work by Ohannessian, Minassian, and Emin); [Fig. 7] the entryway and mosque interior of Prince Mohammed Ali Tewfik’s palace in Cairo (now the Manial Palace Museum; tile work by Ohannessian and Emin, c. 1911); the exterior of the Kutahya Government House (completed 1907; the original tiles have now been entirely replaced, although the interior mosque retains much of its original tiling). Kemalettin also commissioned Emin to produce façade tiles for the Haydarpaşa and other boat landings along the Bosphorus River. During this extraordinary burst of activity between 1907 and 1914, the Kutahya ustas employed 150 workers.

[7] Interior of the Türbe of Sultan Reşad V, Eyüp, Istanbul
(architect, Ahmet Kemalettin; tile work, David Ohannessian,
the Minassian brothers, and Mehmet Emin; completed 1913-14).
Photo by author, 2014.
[8]“Turkish Room,” Sledmere House, home of
the Sykes family. Photo by author, 2007.
In 1911, Sykes commissioned David Ohannessian to design and execute an organic and original array of tiles for his Yorkshire estate. [Fig. 8] In a letter to his architect, Sykes wrote, “it seems that [Ohannessian] accidentally discovered a way of making something very nearly approaching the old white, which is neither dead white nor cream, but has the bluish tinge of the white of a child’s eye.”* The tiles were shipped to England at the end of 1913. 

This bloom of creativity and success would soon come to an end. The Ottoman entry into war in November 1914, constricted the ceramists’ work. The following year, Kutahya’s mutasarrıf (governor), Faik Ali Bey, resisted Constantinople’s deportation orders for his Armenian citizens, but was removed from office in March 1916, and reassigned to Gelibolu (Gallipoli). David Ohannessian was arrested; he and his young family were deported to the Syrian desert of Deir Zor, together with hundreds of thousands of other Armenians. During the forced march, Ohannessian contracted a near-fatal case of typhus; the whole family faced starvation. By the end of 1916, the Ohannessians had reached Aleppo, where they quietly entered the throngs of destitute survivors.

In November 1918, Mark Sykes’ final Foreign Office mission led him to Jerusalem and then Aleppo, where he re-encountered Ohannessian. A number of British officers and diplomats had seen the magnificent installation in Sledmere House and concurred when Sykes recommended Ohannessian to the Pro-Jerusalem Society as it searched for an artist to create new tiles for the Dome of the Rock.

Ohannessian arrived in Jerusalem in early 1919 and learned that an old kiln had been discovered on the Haram al-Sharif. The ceramist conducted experiments to see if it could be used again and searched for appropriate raw materials. A 1944 article in the Palestine Post related, “Ohannessian, the only one still to do so, uses as fuel a carefully prepared mixture of olive and pine wood. The old potters tell of that first furnace in Jerusalem, formally opened by Lord Allenby, the entire output of which was spoilt owing to the impossibility of getting the right fuel at the time. That failure almost jeopardized the future of the industry.”

The Pro-Jerusalem Society, conjointly with Jerusalem’s waqf—the Islamic pious foundation responsible for maintenance of the Muslim holy sites—negotiated a contract with Ohannessian and advanced him some capital to begin the work. The Grand Mufti launched an international campaign to raise funds for the entire restoration project.

The traditional techniques of tile manufacture required a number of workers in well-established divisions of skilled and semi-skilled labor: designers, quartz and flint grinders, clay mixers, slip makers, pattern tracers, tile cutters, painters, wood gatherers, and kiln stokers.

The Grand Mufti rejected the notion of a commercial pottery on the Haram al-Sharif. Instead, Governor Storrs found a suitable location on the Via Dolorosa and Ohannessian designed a new kiln and work areas. In July 1919, during the construction of the kiln and studio, the ceramist requested permission to travel to Kutahya to gather remaining colleagues, tools, and materials and bring them back to Jerusalem. Harutyun Minassian had been deported to the interior of Anatolia in 1918; he and his brother ultimately relocated to Athens. Mehmet Emin continued a scaled-down operation, but with the loss of so many workers, he had stopped producing tiles in 1918. He joined the Turkish army and would be killed by advancing Greek forces in 1922. The Kutahya tile tradition, which had been so carefully and fruitfully revived at the beginning of the twentieth century, became another casualty of the Great War.

Ohannessian returned to Jerusalem in the autumn of 1919 with Nishan Balian, an expert at the potter’s wheel; Mgerditch Karakashian, who specialized in black brush drawing and tracing of traditional designs; several other workers who painted colors into outlined patterns and were adept at glazing and firing; and the artisans’ wives and children. Ohannessian’s new workshop was called the Dome of the Rock Tiles. He also established a School of Ceramics, supported by the Pro-Jerusalem Society, and trained orphaned Armenian genocide survivors, who were placed with him by the Near East Relief foundation. [Fig. 9]

[9] Girls decorating ceramics at the Dome of the Rock Tiles
workshop (1920). American Colony Photo from the Library
of Congress Prints and Photograph Division.

Ohannessian’s workshop produced calligraphic and other replacement tiles for the Dome of the Rock and also began to produce pottery for retail sale and export. The Pro-Jerusalem Society commissioned Ohannessian to produce street name tiles, inscribed in three languages: English, Arabic, and Hebrew. [Fig. 10]

[10] Dome of the Rock Tiles street sign. These tri-lingual Mandate-era street signs are no longer in situ. Reproduced by permission of the Ohannessian family.
By 1921, Jerusalem’s Muslim community had re-established dominion over its own holy sites. The Supreme Muslim Shari’a Council, formed that year to protect the interests of Palestine’s Muslims, hired Ahmet Kemalettin, then chief architect of the Awqaf (Pious Foundation) Ministry in Constantinople, to develop restoration plans for the buildings on the Haram al-Sharif. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Kemalettin, who had frequently worked with Ohannessian during his Kutahya years, praised the ceramist’s work highly, saying that he was “unequalled in his industry except by one in the whole world.” [Mukhliss; 18] Shortly afterwards, perhaps fearing the complete demise of the Ottoman tile trade, Kemalettin changed his attitude and insisted that the tiles be manufactured in Turkey and shipped to Jerusalem. Although Armenian Christians had constituted the majority of Kutahya’s ceramic makers in the preceding centuries, Ohannessian and his fellow Armenian artists in Jerusalem were precluded from completing the  work. (The full exterior restoration was finally accomplished in 1966. Nearly all the remaining historic tiles were removed and replaced with imported tiles produced in Kutahya by the Çinicioğlu family.) 

[11] Samples from the Dome of the Rock Tiles
workshop, circa late 1920s. Ohannessian Family Archives.

In 1922, Balian and Karakashian left Ohannessian’s employ to establish their own joint workshop outside the Old City walls on Nablus Road.

By the end of 1922, the Dome of the Rock Tiles workshop was in full production and had become a destination for visiting officials to see the success of the Pro-Jerusalem Society’s efforts to integrate traditional arts into the life of the Holy City. Ohannessian and the studio’s thirty workers produced tiles for monuments, altars, and domestic façades, as well as standing ware and plates [Fig. 11] that were exported to many countries. The ongoing concern was the local region’s lack of minerals essential to the traditional Ottoman ceramic techniques; Ohannessian requested a mineral survey of Palestine from Mandate Geological Advisor, G. S. Blake. The artists continued to search for ways to adapt the available materials for their purposes.

[12] Fountain niche at St. Andrew’s Church and Guesthouse. 
Ceramics by David Ohannessian (1930).
Over the next two decades, Ohannessian received commissions for numerous monumental installations in Jerusalem including tile panels for the entryway and courtyard of the American Colony (1923; now a luxury hotel); a tiled room for the St. John Ophthalmic Hospital (c. 1925; now the Jerusalem House of Quality); a tiled fountain with muqarnas at the Church and Guesthouse of St. Andrew (1930) [Fig. 12]; a massive fireplace for the British High Commissioner’s headquarters (1933; now part of the United Nations organization); and a tiled iwan--the vaulted space opening onto the courtyard of the Palestine Archeological Museum (opened 1937; now the Rockefeller Museum).

Ohannessian also worked with architects, primarily Spyro Houris, on a series of “ceramic houses” in Jerusalem, built in the 1920s and ‘30s. [Fig. 13] His clients included Christian and Muslim Arabs, and he carried over the Ottoman tradition of façade ornamentation to Jerusalem. As the facing of all new construction had to be the golden Jerusalem stone (this Mandate regulation was codified into law in the 1930s), these tiled decorations, with their deep blues and greens, offered a brilliant splash of color against the sere landscape. The houses were built in the neighborhoods of Talbiyeh and Sheikh Jarrah, as well as on Jaffa and Queen Helena Roads.  

[13] Detail of Beit Gelat (1926), Architects: Spyro Houris and Nikephoros Petassis; façade tiles by David Ohannessian. Photo by author, 2013.

David Ohannessian continued to produce pottery and tiles until 1948, when he left for Damascus, Cairo, and finally Beirut, where he died in 1953. The joint Nishan Balian-Mgerditch Karakashian workshop continued operating until the deaths of the original partners. Subsequently, their descendants opened separate workshops, creating and exporting a wide variety of work. In 1954, Marie Alexanian, a French-Armenian painter, trained at the Lyon Académie des Beaux-Arts, married Nishan’s son, Setrag, and introduced an original design vocabulary to Jerusalem tile work. Marie Balian’s creations have been exhibited in major international museums, including the Smithsonian Institution. The Balian family workshop remains on Nablus Road, outside the Old City. The Karakashian family continues to make beautiful tiles in their atelier on the Via Dolorosa, adjacent to the original Dome of the Rock Tiles location. Other Armenian families have also joined in. The Sandrouni brothers—Garo, George, and Harry—each with his own shop, have made keen efforts to understand and document the history of Jerusalem pottery traditions, methodically writing about Armenian contributions, photographing extant works, and making splendid pottery of their own [see Fig. 2].

The art of Armenian ceramics continues to thrive—from the gorgeously painted objets d’art, handmade in the high-end studios, to the small trinkets made in quantity for tourists.  Although the glazes, designs, and colors evoke the distant past, the art itself is less than a hundred years old. Established after the losses and hardships of the Great War, it spills forth today with vibrant life—a  transplanted and transformed branch of an old Ottoman tradition—now inextricably woven into the panorama of Jerusalem.

SATO MOUGHALIAN is a professional flutist in New York City and the granddaughter of David Ohannessian. Her essay “David Ohannessian and the Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem” will be published in A la découverte de la Jérusalem des Arméniens. Paris: Somogy Éditions d’Art (forthcoming). She is currently writing a book-length biography of Ohannessian.

*Thanks to the Yorkshire Archaeological Society for permission to quote from Mark Sykes’ letter to architect Walter Brierley. Ref: YAS MS729/37

**Special thanks to Daniel B. Monk of Colgate University for sharing several documents and for his insights into rebuilding in the early British Mandate years and to Bedross Der Matossian of the University of Nebraska/Lincoln for his valuable suggestions.

Citation: "From Kutahya to Al-Quds: The Birth of the Armenian Ceramics Trade in Jerusalem," Sato Moughalian, Stambouline (December 8, 2015).

Selected Bibliography:
ALBOYADJIAN, Arshak. Memorial Volume of Armenians in Kutahya (in Armenian). Beirut: Donikian Press, 1961.
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ASHBEE, Charles Robert. Report by Mr. C. R. Ashbee on the arts and crafts of Jerusalem and district (1918). [archival material]
ATASOY, Nurhan, Julian Raby, and Yanni Petsopoulos. Iznik: The Pottery of Ottoman Turkey. London: Alexandria Press in association with Laurence King, 1994.
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CARSWELL, John. Iznik Pottery. London: Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Press, 1998.
CARSWELL, John, and C. J. F. Dowsett. Kütahya Tiles and Pottery from the Armenian Cathedral of St. James, Jerusalem, 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.
ÇİNİ, Rifat. Kütahya in Turkish Tilemaking. Translated by Solmaz Turunc and Aydin Turunc. Istanbul: Uycan Yayinlari A. S., 1991.
DOLEV, E. Allenby's Military Medicine Life and Death in World War I Palestine. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.
HOFFMAN, Adina. Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Forthcoming, 2016).
KENAAN-KEDAR, Nurith. The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem: Three Generations, 1919-2003. Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 2003.
KOUYMJIAN, Dickran. “Armenian Potters of Kutahia,” in Richard G. Hovannisian, ed., Armenian Communities of Asia Minor. Costa Mesa: Mazda, 2014.
KUPFERSCHMIDT, Uri. The Supreme Muslim Council: Islam under the British Mandate for Palestine. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1987.
KÜRKMAN, Garo. Magic of Clay and Fire. Istanbul: Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation, 2006.
MONK, Daniel Bertrand. An Aesthetic Occupation. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.
MUKHLISS, Abdallah and Ya’qub Abu al-Huda. Report to Herbert Samuel. November 5, 1923 (translated), ISA/CS/189. Page 18.
NECİPOĞLU Gülrü. "From International Timurid to Ottoman: A Change of Taste in Sixteenth-Century Ceramic Tiles." Muqarnas. 7 (1990): 136-170.
OLENIK, Yael. The Armenian Pottery of Jerusalem [Exhibition Catalogue, Ceramics Pavilion, Haaretz Museum, Tel Aviv, Summer 1986]. Tel Aviv: Haaretz Museum, 1986.
RICHMOND, Ernest Tatum. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924.
STORRS, Ronald. The Memoirs of Sir Ronald Storrs. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1937.
SYKES, Mark. The Caliphs' Last Heritage; A Short History of the Turkish Empire. London: Macmillan and Co, 1915.
YAVUZ, Yıldırım. “The Restoration Project of the Masjid Al-Aqsa by Mimar Kemalettin (1922-26),” Muqarnas. 13 (1996). Pages 149-64.


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