It’s a Jerusalem story involving the British, Armenian Christians, and Moslems. In the 1920’s the British facilitate the return to Jerusalem of Armenian Christian ceramic artists in order to renovate the Moslem Dome of the Rock. Anyone who walks through the Old City of Jerusalem passes the workshops of Armenian ceramics artists and sees their beautiful works. But why did the British go through such lengths to bring artists from Armenia for the project? And in typical Jerusalem style, everything hinges on one man – David Ohannessian.
When the Dome of the Rock was built at the end of the 7th century CE by al-Malik, it was covered in glass mosaics. Many floors and buildings in the late Roman and Byzantine eras were adorned with mosaics. If you visit any of the Byzantine era churches and synagogues in Israel, the mosaic floor is the focus of the building. It makes sense that the early Moslems would lean on this style when it came to adorning their most important buildings.
When Suleiman the Magnificent came into power in the 16th century CE, the Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem were in a state of disrepair. He rebuilt many parts of the city including the city walls, which stand until today, and he renovated the Dome of the Rock, including ceramic tiles which were the style in his native Turkey.
Another 400 years would pass until the coming of the British. Desiring to make Jerusalem the jewel in the crown of the newly established British Mandate of Palestine, they set about sprucing up the city. Time had not been kind to the ceramic tiles of Suleiman which had been repaired happenstance throughout 400 years. That’s when Mark Sykes, who had been stationed in Turkey, mentioned to his friend Ronald Storrs, who would become the head of the pro-Jerusalem Society, of his acquaintance with a talented Armenian Christian ceramic artist, David Ohannesian.
David Ohannesian was born in 1884 in Armenia but grew up in central Turkey. His father died when David was only 14 and he left school to take up a trade to help support his family, becoming a ceramic artist. At age 23 he founded his own studio with other artists and worked on public and private projects in the traditional Iznik pottery style. His public projects included the tomb of Sultan Rashid IV and the Central Post Office in Istanbul, preservation works at the Green Mosque in Bursa and, interestingly enough, preservation work in Mecca.
Because of his relationship with Sykes, and his professional reputation as an artist and restorer, David Ohannesian was offered the opportunity to renovate the Dome of the Rock and moved to Jerusalem. David brought with him two other Armenian ceramic artists from Turkey – Neshan Balian and Mgrditch Karakashian – who would go on to found their own studio, Palestine Pottery, in 1922.
When he arrived in Jerusalem, Ohannesian saw an opportunity. He wanted to create ceramics not just in the Turkish Iznik style, but he wanted in his creative works to invent a uniquely Armenian Jerusalem style of pottery. The starting point was a very exciting archaeological discovery of a 6th century CE Armenian Christian church in Israel with a mosaic floor. This floor, and the images on it, became the basis for the Armenian Jerusalem pottery that you see today. Birds inside medallions, with grapes and pomegranates characterize Armenian Jerusalem pottery until today.
David Ohannesian created many public works which make their mark on the character of Jerusalem including the American Colony Hotel, a grand fountain in the Rockefeller Museum and street signs in the Old City. Next time you are walking through the Old City of Jerusalem and you see the ceramics studios operating in the Armenian Quarter, think of the one man who placed his creative mark to beautify the city of Jerusalem.