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Armenian Weekly

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The Origins of an Iconic Jerusalem Art Form: Armenian Ceramics

Feast of Ashes: The Life and Art of David Ohannessian, by Sato Moughalian. Stanford: Redwood Press, 2019.

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In 1919, an Armenian genocide survivor who had trekked from Turkey to Syria with his family had a miraculous stroke of good fortune. This chance, which came about due to his unique and prodigious talents as a master ceramicist, would bring him to Jerusalem, where he would go on to transform the city’s arts and culture in a fundamental way.

The fascinating story of David Ohannessian, the subject of Feast of Ashes: The Life and Art of David Ohannessian, is told by his granddaughter, Sato Moughalian. An Armenian American flutist with no direct experience of the family’s Jerusalem years (or even of her grandfather, for that matter), her interest in her family’s history developed slowly, fed by a few disparate factoids: the sadness and silence that periodically came over her parents when memories of their past intruded on the present; her mother’s written account of her family’s history, drawing on the recollections of her six siblings; her aunt’s list of her father’s commissioned works; her readings about the Armenian genocide; and a few pieces of pottery created by her grandfather that were in the family’s possession.

Feast of Ashes: The Life and Art of David Ohannessian book cover

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Redwood Press/Stanford University Press

Sato Moughalian

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Sato Moughalian’s Twitter feed

In 2007 or so, granddaughter Moughalian felt a need to begin searching “to make sense of my grandfather’s art.”1 The urge to excavate her family’s history would take her over the years to Turkey, England, France, Jerusalem, Egypt, and Lebanon. In piecing together this chronicle of her grandfather’s life, she offers a fascinating glimpse of the development of Palestinian pottery in Jerusalem during the mandate period, a process that he initiated and shaped. She also painstakingly describes the period in which Ohannessian lived, which spanned the end of the Ottoman Empire, the traumatic fracturing of that empire, the British Mandate for Palestine, and the loss of Palestine. This is very much a story of displacement and coping with the repeated loss of safe havens.

This is very much a story of displacement and coping with the repeated loss of safe havens.

Forced Exile

Reading Feast of Ashes, one becomes aware of how moments can become turning points that shape a life. In 1911, Tavit (David) Ohannessian, a master ceramicist from Kütahya, a city south of Istanbul in then Anatolia (today Turkey), was hired by British diplomat Mark Sykes (of Sykes-Picot fame) to design  2,700 tiles for a room (“a tiled garden of paradise”) in the family estate in Yorkshire that Sykes was rebuilding after a major fire.2 Sykes, who was very partial to the old Ottoman style arts, wanted to emulate one of the sultan’s apartments in the Yeni Mosque in Istanbul, and the Iznik-style tiles expressed all these old the motifs and techniques brilliantly.3 The result was stunning.

The Turkish Room in Sledmere House, with 2,700 tiles designed by Armenian master ceramicist David Ohanessian. The house is a public site today and can be visited in the United Kingdom, near York.

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Corcucopia

And so, years later, when British administrators in Jerusalem discovered that the Dome of the Rock was in urgent need of repair, they consulted with Sykes and concluded that Ohannessian was the man for the job. He was no longer in Kütahya by then, of course; he and his family, like much of the Armenian population in the area, had been brutally driven out of the Ottoman Empire. The largely Armenian-run Kütahya potteries—which in their heyday in the 17th century numbering about 300—were on the brink of disappearing on the eve of the genocide in 1907.4 Unlike around a million others, they managed to survive the genocide and the devastating year-long trek to Syria.

The Heritage of Kütahya

  

Credit: TRT World YouTube Page 

TRT World, a Turkish public broadcast service, produced this report on a 2018 exhibit at the xx Museum in Istanbul of 500 years of Kütahya ceramics. The exhibit reflects the adaptability of the Kutahya ceramics artisans, who were able to expand from producing art commissioned by the palace to objects for popular public use, such as coffee cups—more like folk art. In this way, they were able to survive when the palace interest waned in the late 17th century.

The Heritage of Kütahya

At the end of 1918, Sykes found Ohannessian in Aleppo among the stream of destitute Armenian refugees flooding the city and offered him the job of creating the tiles that would be used to repair the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam. Ohannessian recognized the offer as a lifeline and grabbed it; he would go to Jerusalem with his wife and three young children and start over (as did the 20,000 or so Armenians who settled there during World War I).5 For his wife, Victoria, an opportunity to go to Jerusalem was more of a pilgrimage for which she could give thanks following her family’s survival of a horrific ordeal.6 And for almost 30 years, the family that would grow to include seven children would enjoy a stable, prosperous life.

At the end of 1918, Sykes found Ohannessian in Aleppo among the stream of destitute Armenian refugees flooding the city.

Repairing the Dome of the Rock

Taking his family to Jerusalem to tackle the new mission, Ohannessian assessed the task and the available resources at his disposal. In a move of tremendous courage, he returned to Kütayha—the city in which he developed his skill as a master craftsman, and the city from which he and so many other Armenians had been exiled in 1916. The trip was undoubtedly made easier by the safe transit document he had obtained from Istanbul, requested by the British Military Administration. He needed a team of skilled craftsmen and certain supplies to complete the mosque repairs, and he believed Kütahya was the place to find them.

Ohanessian was able to lure at least eight artisans of varying specializations back to Jerusalem in the fall of 1919, among them Nishan Balian, an expert with the potter’s wheel, and Mgrditch Karakashian, a master painter of traditional designs. They worked in Ohannessian’s workshop, named Dome of the Rock Tiles, on Via Dolorosa in the Old City, until 1922, when they left to set up their own studio, Palestine Pottery.7

Male potter throwing a pot on the wheel at the Dome of the Rock Tiles Workshop on the Via Dolorsa, Jerusalem in the early 1920s. The workshop was run by Armenian ceramicist David Ohannessian.

Credit: 

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-matpc-08777]

Male potters shape earthenware jars on the wheels at the Dome of the Rock Tiles workshop, Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem in the early 1920s. The workshop was run by Armenian ceramicist David Ohannessian.

Credit: 

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-matpc-05664]

For a master craftsman who came close to death during the year-long trek to Aleppo from Kütahya, the chance to work on mosque restoration must have seemed like a fairy tale. Here’s how the author described her grandfather’s introduction to the repair work he was hired to perform:

Notes

1

Sato Moughalian, Feast of Ashes: The Life and Art of David Ohannessian (Stanford: Redwood Press, 2019), 263.

2

Sledmore House,” Cornucopia Magazine.

3

Moughalian, Feast of Ashes, 94.

4

Melanie Gibson, “Kütahya in Many Guises,” Cornucopia 57,

5

Moughalian, Feast of Ashes, 199.

6

Moughalian, Feast of Ashes, 147.

7

Moughalian, Feast of Ashes, 165, 183.

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