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Armenian Pottery and the Karakashians

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 31.10.2008:

By Tzoghig Aintablian Karakashian

When you take a walk through the market alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City today, you are charmed by its unique atmosphere and people, the spicy odours, the unique sounds of church bells and mosques calling for prayers. Of course you cannot avoid the overzealous owners of the myriad souvenir shops who want to sell you their merchandise ranging from olive wood to jewellery to colourfully painted and glazed so-called Armenian pottery. This kind of pottery is abundant in the souvenir shops and bazaars of the Old City and all across the Holy Land. Little is known, however, about the origins of this ancient Armenian art and how it arrived in Palestine and established itself in Jerusalem.

The journey started in a little town called Kutahia, south east of Istanbul, Turkey, where many Armenians used to live and work in the local potteries, making hand-painted ceramic wares and tiles. Kutahia was a centre of pottery and tile-making in Turkey.

In 1919 following an invitation by the British Mandate in Jerusalem, several Armenian potters were brought with their families to Jerusalem from Kutahia. They were appointed by the British pro-Jerusalem society to renovate the tiles covering the external walls of the Dome of the Rock. Among the artists in this group of craftsmen was master painter Megerditch Karakashian. Because of the persecutions of Armenians by the Turks back home, these families decided to settle in Jerusalem, where they established the art of Armenian ceramics.

Of the original Armenian families who came from Turkey to do tile work for the Dome of the Rock, only two remain who continue this centuries-old tradition of making Armenian pottery. They are the Karakashians and Balians, who work and produce their art in Jerusalem. Prior to their arrival, there was no tradition of hand-painted ceramic tile or pottery-making in Jerusalem.

Megerditch and his partner, Neshan Balian, set up their pottery workshop on Nablus Road in 1922, and started to produce hand-painted ceramic wares and tiles. They introduced the art of Armenian pottery to Jerusalem, contributing to the local art scene and culture.

Their designs included birds, peacocks, gazelles, and intricate floral patterns based on ancient Kutahia and Iznik designs. They also integrated local designs into their repertoire, such as the famous Tree-of-Life mosaic from Hisham’s Palace in Jericho; the Jerusalem-map mosaic from Madaba, Jordan, and the birds-in-vine mosaic from the ancient Musrara Armenian chapel in Jerusalem.

The successful partnership produced many works which adorn the walls of public and private buildings in and around Jerusalem. Examples of their work include the Tree-of-Life fountain in the Legacy Hotel in Jerusalem, the tile panels of the façade of Saint James Armenian Cathedral in Jerusalem, and beautiful tile works in the Armenian cemetery.

The Karakashian family ceramic tradition continued with the two brothers Stepan and Berge Karakashian. After the death of their father, the two separated from the Balians and in 1964 established their own ceramic studio called Jerusalem Pottery at 15 Via Dolorosa in the Old City, which operates to this day.

One of Stepan’s contributions to Jerusalem was the making of the ceramic street signs in the Old City, which can be seen today. At first, the Jordanian government commissioned Stepan and his brother Berge to make the street signs in English and Arabic. After the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, however, the Israelis commissioned the brothers to add the Hebrew names underneath each street sign.

The designs of the Karakashians still include the traditional motifs that their father brought with him from Kutahia. Graceful gazelles painted on a cobalt-blue background graze peacefully among foliage. Elegant peacocks with long colourful plumage are painted on tiles and symbolise long life. Many of their designs are based on ancient mosaics and Armenian manuscripts. In addition, they have developed beautiful contemporary tiles that represent Biblical stories and the colourful Old City skyline with its various quarters.

The clays used by the Karakashians are brought from Hebron and mixed in a specific proportion. This mixture is especially strong and free from glazing and firing defects.

All the decoration is done by hand in the Karakashian studio. Nowadays, the pieces are fired in electric kilns, which give better results than the earlier wood-fired kilns. Some colours are still mixed according to the same recipes that their father used eighty years ago. The colours are obtained from metallic oxides; the rich dark blue, which is greatly admired, is made from cobalt oxide. The light blue, green, and brown colours are made from copper, chromium, and iron oxides.

In 1995 Hagop, the son of Stepan, completed his higher education in the United States and came back to join the family business and preserve the family tradition of pottery and tile making. He created the website to sell the family ceramics worldwide, and also brought back to life the making of large tile murals, introducing his own style and designs.

The Karakashian studio and shop is small but very rich with its unique plates, bowls, candlesticks, mugs, and tiles in many shapes and sizes. It is the perfect place to find a gift or a memento of Jerusalem.

There are many imitations of Armenian pottery on the market today. These wares are mass produced and of low quality. One can tell the difference between an original hand-painted bowl and an imitation by noticing the brush strokes on the original piece. The originals also have the Karakashian family signature on the back.

The Karakashians take great pride in their work and in maintaining their standard of craftsmanship. They look to the future with the hope that Karakashians will continue for generations to come to supply Jerusalemites and those who visit here with their unique style of Jerusalem pottery. Already Hagop’s young daughter Patil seems to want to continue on the path of her grandfather Stepan by coming to the studio and painting small things. Who knows, maybe she will one day be the fourth generation representing this great art work.

Tzoghig Aintablian Karakashian is the wife of Hagop Karakashian. She works in the field of tourism. This Week in Palestine

November 2008

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