One room at Sledmere, a palatial home in Yorkshire County, England, is unique. Designed by an Armenian artist for British diplomat Mark Sykes in 1913, it is called The Turkish Room — and its walls are completely covered by ceramic tiles.
Six years after the room was finished, the British military governor of Jerusalem asked this same artist to restore the glazed tiles on the outer walls of the Dome of the Rock. The governor’s name was Sir Ronald Storrs; the Armenian artist David Ohannessian.
Ohannessian accepted the invitation, and together with the British brought over Armenian artists Neshan Balian and Megerdish Karakashian. All three had previous experience in glazed ceramic workshops in Turkey.
As fate would have it, within a very few years Storrs and the three Armenian artists changed the face of Jerusalem. For in 1920 Storrs decreed that every new building in the city had to be constructed with Jerusalem’s warm, native stone. At the same time, the Armenians were combining traditional ceramics with all that is uniquely Jerusalem. And since then, Armenian Jerusalem ceramics — a local product that didn’t exist before the artists’ arrival in 1919 — can be seen on or inside dozens of buildings in the city.
Ohannessian’s granddaughter, Sato Moughalian, released a biography about the tradesman last year.
Last fall, Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Archeological Museum launched an exciting new exhibit showcasing 100 years of Armenian Jerusalem Ceramics. Fawzi Ibrahim, the Museum and the exhibition curator, called it “A Glimpse of Paradise” after a fabulous mural of the same name produced by the late Marie Balian, an internationally acclaimed Armenian ceramics artist. The exhibition was designed by Eliran Mishal.
In preparation for the exhibit, Ibrahim carried out a lot of detective work. He located pieces of the ceramic tiles that adorned the Dome of the Rock from the 16th century, 18th-century tiles from St. James Cathedral, and discovered exquisite 17th and 18th century ceramic tiles that decorated the Tomb of David before the works were destroyed by vandals.
Ohannessian received his first public commission in 1922, when asked to decorate a beautiful bench created by famous British designer Charles Robert Ashbee for the Tower of David. Although that work no longer exists, Ibrahim unearthed very similar Ohannessian panels from the same period and displayed them in a bench very much like the original.
Also among the splendid items on display are a plate featuring Armenia’s coat of arms, a series of bird ceramics based on a 6th century mosaic discovered in Jerusalem with an Armenian inscription, a ceramic map of the Land of Israel in Hebrew from the 1930s, a lovely Passover Seder plate and contemporary ceramic tiles produced especially for the occasion.
Over the past 100 years, Jerusalem has changed hands three different times. Ceramic street signs on one wall of the exhibit tell the story, for during the Mandate names were listed in English on top, Arabic in the middle, and Hebrew down below. When the city was divided in 1948, signs in East Jerusalem eradicated the Hebrew words; today Arabic is sandwiched between Hebrew on top and English at the bottom.
One of three videos at the exhibit features many of the Jerusalem buildings boasting ceramic tiles. Another depicts Sledmere’s Turkish Room and a third demonstrates the two methods of producing local Armenian ceramics: under glazing and dry cord (Cuerda Seca). Paints, materials and tools used to create the ceramics are on display as well, while excellent signs offer detailed explanations of the history and development of this unique school of art.
The Rockefeller Museum — an East Jerusalem satellite of the Israel Museum — is itself a work of art. John D. Rockefeller Junior donated two million dollars for construction of this magnificent edifice, the first building in the country to be built specifically as a museum. Containing thousands of archeological artifacts excavated during the British Mandate (1919-1948), it opened in 1938 south of Herod’s Gate and across from the Old City walls.
A brilliant mixture of east and west, the complex houses several wings in a single structure and boasts an octagonal tower. On display at one end of the reflecting pool in the museum’s inner court stands an Ohannessian masterpiece, a blue fountain made of blue tiles whose design he never duplicated.
Wherever you look…
To view local Armenian ceramics in Jerusalem, all you need to do is wander through the city. They are found on dwellings built by wealthy Christians and Muslims during the British Mandate, in hotels, churches, museums, cemeteries, at least one mosque, and at the entrance to a synagogue.
In the Talbieh neighborhood at least two buildings sport beautiful ceramic tiles. One is even known as Ceramics House (Beit Hakeramika), for its gorgeous ornamentation. Built by Elias and Catherine Gelat in the 1930s, it is also famous as the site where the United Nations Peel Commission held its deliberations and came up with the first plan for partitioning Palestine.
There are ceramic tiles on several homes in the Bak’a neighborhood, including a villa on Shimshon Street. Its owner was Dib Shukry, one of the leading car dealers in Jerusalem during the 1930s. Nearby, in the German Colony, ceramic tiles beautify the entrance to a home on Hatzfira Street dating back to 1938.
Both Lawrence of Arabia and Richard Gere were once guests at the American Colony Hotel on Nablus Street. The gorgeous villa, one of the first homes to appear outside of the Old City Walls, was built by a rich effendi to house himself and his four wives.
The effendi died without leaving a single male heir, and in 1896 it was rented out to the American Colony, a group from Chicago noted for its charitable undertakings. The Colony began taking in paying guests at the beginning of the 20th century, doubling up to make room for out-of-town visitors. Little by little the American Colony Hotel became famous for its combination of European and Middle Eastern hospitality and ambience. Ohannessian’s 1923 works are on display in the elegant lobby.
Located across from Mount Zion, the white-domed Scottish Church of St. Andrews was built in 1927 and honors hundreds of Scottish troops who died wresting the Holy Land from the Ottoman Turks during World War I. The guesthouse, which was added in 1930, sports several stunning blue Armenian ceramic works of art.
Missionaries from America and England are buried in the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion, adjacent to the Jerusalem University College. But near the entrance, the grave of one Herand Petrosian, who passed in 1937, is covered with Armenian tiles.
Sometime in the 1930s, writer and scholar Isaaf Nashashibi built a gorgeous villa for his family in the Sheikh Jaffah neighborhood that boasts a rich array of ceramic tiles. Today it serves the East Jerusalem population as a center for the arts and literature, offering courses, lectures, and housing an extensive public library.
Ceramic tiles adorn an edifice on Helena Hamalka Street downtown that was constructed in 1929. Soon afterward it was incorporated, together with a neighboring building, into a hotel that operated until 1966. All kinds of important people lodged there before they became government officials, including David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol.
Sometime in the late 1920s, the owner of a pub near the Mahane Yehuda market was persuaded by a neighborhood butcher and his goons to transform his enterprise into a Sephardic synagogue called Hessed VeRahamim. Remarkable for its doors, which are covered with uniquely decorative silver symbols representing the 12 tribes, it was recently renovated.
Today the entrance is graced with lovely Armenian ceramic tiles created by Hagop Antreassian. One of the rare Armenian artists who, although born in Jerusalem, is not a scion of the original three families who arrived in 1919, he began his ceramics career in 1980.
Rockefeller Museum hours:
Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday,
10 a.m. — 3 p.m.
Sat 10 am – 2 pm
Free entrance, parking on site Saturdays only.
Wear coats in the winter as there is no heating.
No wheelchair accessibility
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.