Although the Armenian community in Jerusalem goes back to the 5th century, it was only in the 1920’s that Armenian Ceramics were introduced in the city. In 1919 the British authorities invited Armenian pottery craftsman David Ohannessian to repair the 16th century ceramic tiles that were decorating the Dome of the Rock. Ohennesian recruited a few fellow artisans to assist him, but the project was never completed. The official reason was luck of funds, but the rumor was that the Muslims opposed having Christians repair their Muslim shrine. The building would eventually be repaired in 1962, under Jordanian rule, with tiles from Turkey. Nevertheless, Ohannesian settled in Jerusalem, and opened a workshop of Armenian ceramics and tiles, along the Via Dolorosa. His distinct artwork became popular, and especially his colored tiles. Various buildings in the British Mandate period were decorated with his tiles many buildings during the British Mandate – The Rockefeller Museum, The American Colony hotel, Mount Zion Hotel, and more.
More workshops opened
In 1922 two of his fellow artisans, Balian and Karakakashian, opened their own Ceramic Workshop in Jerusalem, north of the Old City. Karakashian was the master painter, and Balian was the potter. Together they developed the local “Jerusalamite” style in Armenian ceramics. It is inspired by the traditional designs of Iznik, yet combines decorative elements from local ancient mosaic floors. Karakahian and Balian were also commissioned to decorate different building projects, such as the Armenian Saint James Cathedral, the Armenian Patriarchs burial courtyard, on Mount Zion, and more. However, in the 1960’s they split. Karakashain’s family moved to the old city and opened a workshop with a showroom. Today they operate at workshop next to the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate. In 1965 The Karakashian family was commissioned to create tiles bearing the street names of the old city, which are in use to this day to mark the street and alleys of Jerusalem’s old city.
Armenian Ceramics Workshops Today
Today there are 6 active workshops of what can be labeled as Armenian-inspired-Jerusalem-ceramics. Opposite Saint James Cathedral operates Garo Sandrouni. He is a Jerusalem-born Armenian who opened his own workshop in 1983. His two brothers also operate their own ceramics workshops. One right next to him, and the other next to the New Gate. Another member of the local Armenian community, Hagop Antreassian, runs his own ceramic workshop, next to Zion gate.
Along the Christian road, is another ceramics workshop of this style of, but it is ran by member of the Assyriac community of Jerusalem, Eli Kouz.
Visiting the Workshops
Most of the Armenian Ceramic workshops are in the Christian and Armenian Quarters. Unfortunately, their livelihood is now under threat. Many souvenir shops in the old city now sell low quality machine-made imitations of these ceramics. They are mass produced in the West Bank, or imported from China, at a fifth of the cost of a genuine artifact.
For viewing (and possibly shopping) genuine Armenian ceramics, it is recommended to order a Day tour of Jerusalem that will include a visit to these workshops.