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Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 17.09.2006:

Maro Sandrouni

Armenians adopted Christianity in the early fourth century, becoming the first nation to accept Christianity as its official religion. Thereafter, Armenian pilgrimage to the Holy Land was essential. Churches were built, institutions were founded and a whole neighbourhood was established in Jerusalem, which later became known as the Armenian Quarter. All this led to the development and prosperity of the Armenian community in Jerusalem. During and after the Armenian massacre in 1915, large numbers of Armenians were exiled from their homeland, and many of them made Jerusalem their new home. This, in turn, contributed to the expansion of the community in Jerusalem.

Armenians are known to be great artisans. However, the art of ceramics was first introduced to Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century for the purpose of renovating the tiles of the Dome of the Rock. During the British military government, Sir Ronald Storrs, the first military governor of the city and the founder of the “Pro-Jerusalem Society,” undertook the task of restoring and renovating the tiles of the Dome of the Rock. In 1915, David Ohanessian, an Armenian master ceramist from Kutahya, was exiled from his homeland. He arrived in Aleppo in 1918 and proceeded to Jerusalem for pilgrimage. In 1919, David Ohanessian was commissioned by the “Pro-Jerusalem Society” to restore the tiles of the Dome of the Rock. In the meantime, an old kiln was found in the vicinity of the Dome of the Rock. Being an expert in the field of ceramics, Mr. Ohanessian examined the quality of the kiln and decided to undertake the task. He immediately left for Kutahya and returned to Jerusalem with the necessary tools, materials and craftsmen who assisted him in his endeavour. By the end of 1919, and with the assistance of the “Pro-Jerusalem Society,” the first Armenian pottery workshop was established on Via Dolorosa Street in the Old City under the name “Dome of the Rock Tiles” and it lasted until 1948.

David Ohanessian was famous for his brightly sophisticated designs. He followed the tradition of the master ceramists of Kutahya and never compromised on design or quality. He had decorated palaces and mosques in North Africa, Syria, and Turkey. In Jerusalem, his works can be seen at the Armenian convent of St. Saviour, the church of Pater Noster on the Mt. of Olives, The Scottish Church, and the American Colony Hotel.

As a consequence, a number of Armenian ceramists started their own workshops in Jerusalem. Each of these artists excelled in the art of ceramics, with his unique style, designs, colours and source of inspiration. This art form, which has been associated with the Armenians, became known as the “Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem.”

The style and design of Armenian ceramics have been influenced by the tradition of the classical Iznik and Kutahya in Turkey. Some of its motifs and forms originated in Iran and Syria and others were based on ancient mosaic floors discovered in archaeological excavations in Palestine, mainly the tree of life at Hisham’s Palace in Jericho and the Mussrara mosaic found in the vicinity of Damascus Gate. Some of the designs are inspired by murals in mosques and others by Armenian manuscripts of mythical backgrounds. The floral and geometric patterns are influenced by Ottoman works while the figurative designs are influenced by Persian and Armenian art. Most of the designs used were usually expressive; the famous deer design, for example, symbolizes freedom. Birds, depending on their shapes and sizes, symbolize long life, prosperity and mutual happiness. As for the fish, apart from being a Christian symbol, Armenians used this motif to express fertility. In addition to the above, the gazelle is frequently repeated in very charming and graceful forms. As for the floral designs, they are mostly Iznik. The most common are the tulips and the carnations. The process of producing a design begins with an inspiration. Some of the designs are entirely free hand while others are partially or completely traced. The paints are water-based oxides with their deep cobalt blues, turquoises and greens. A black outline is used to form the design and then it is passed on to another artist to paint the colours.

After painting the pottery, it is dipped in lead-free glaze and put aside to dry. A white powdery layer is formed to protect the paint beneath. After firing it at up to 1100 degrees Celsius in the kiln, the powder turns into glass, giving the pottery its shiny coating. The firing also intensifies the colours on the pottery, giving it a deeper and more brilliant gloss.

The origin of the Armenian ceramic was Kutahya, a small town in eastern Turkey. This area was surrounded by quality raw materials required for the production of pottery. The Armenians who settled in Kutahya during the 15th century established their workshops there, thus converting the city into one of the growing centres for the manufacture of ceramic tiles and pottery. They produced ceramics for the Ottoman rulers according to their tastes and requests. They had to adapt their products to the style dictated by the court designers in Istanbul and the leading pottery centre of Iznik. The Armenian ceramists did not develop their own characteristic style until the 18th century.

Iznik, the leading pottery centre of the Ottoman Court, was situated midway between Kutahya and Istanbul. Its ceramics were known for their unique style of ornamentation, characterized by bold compositions of arabesques and a wealth of stylised floral motifs, painted in brilliant colours, which were made for the purpose of adorning the mosques and palaces of the Turkish Empire. The weakening of the Ottoman rule in the late 17th century led to the closing of the Iznik workshops. As a result, the Armenians became patrons of their own craft. Kutahya then replaced Iznik as the main production centre, and it was at this time that the Armenian art reached its peak, developing a unique style of its own. This style was noted for its free and light designs. The ornamentation comprised of small medallions, dainty flowers and simple geometric designs executed in vivid under-glaze colours of yellow, cobalt blue, green, turquoise, black and red on a white background. In the beginning of the 20th century, persecution of the Armenians forced them to abandon Kutahya. The city today is purely Turkish. The Armenian ceramists of Jerusalem have the liberty of creating their own designs and using their own combination of colours, without restrictions or inhibitions. In general, traditional techniques are used in the production of ceramics. However, some artists made slight modifications to add to the quality and safety of the product.

Through hard work and consistency, the tradition of Armenian pottery has become an important element of the Palestinian heritage. It has found its way into various household items such as plates, serving dishes, vases, tea and coffee sets, mugs, trivets, side lamps, and the like. Hand-painted tiles are also used around the house to decorate kitchens, bathrooms, fireplaces, swimming pools, etc. For almost a decade, Armenians have been known for their excellent craftsmanship and elegant artistic taste in the art of ceramics.

People from all walks of life appreciate the Armenian ceramics of Jerusalem for their beauty, uniqueness and strong colours.


This Week in Palestine

January 2002

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