David Ohannessian, the man who almost single-handedly would change the face of Jerusalem, arrived in the city a near-destitute refugee in December 1918 after narrowly surviving the brutal death marches and genocide of the Armenians inflicted by the Turks.
Ohannessian, his wife, and their children were given a single room in the Armenian monastery in the Old City. With thousands of other shattered families taken into the Armenian Quarter, they wore clothes provided by charities and subsisted on food served at long communal tables.
One year later, Ohannessian established the Dome of the Rock Tiles ceramic workshop and school in the Via Dolorosa. Within a decade, Armenian ceramics had started to change the face of the city, adorning its streets, buildings and many of its most famous landmarks with the distinctive glazed tilework of delicate blues, reds, and greens that became a Jerusalem trademark.
By the time of his death in Beirut in 1953, Ohannessian’s installations could be found in homes and public buildings in Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France, and even Hollywood — where he won a commission to create a tiled fountain for the mansion of movie mogul Louis B. Mayer.
A century after Ohannessian’s transformation from refugee to artistic visionary, his granddaughter Sato Moughalian releases a definitive and intimate biography, “Feast of Ashes: The Life and Art of David Ohannessian,” telling the life story of this extraordinary man for the first time.
Armenian pottery has become synonymous with Jerusalem, so it’s a shock to learn that the city’s ceramic tradition, beyond major monuments such as the Dome of the Rock, is just 100 years old and that it was inspired by a single Turkish-Armenian master craftsman.
Today, the ubiquitous colored glazed bowls, nameplates and trinkets first introduced by Ohannessian and eight more Turkish-Armenian families are for sale at nearly every other stall in the Old City shuk, or open-air market.
That small group’s work can be seen in the tiled motifs on gracious villas in the neighborhoods of Talbieh and Shekh Jarrah, the glazed trilingual street signs in the Old City, the delicate panels in the lobby of the American Colony Hotel, and the monumental tiled fountains and fireplaces in the Scottish Church, Governor’s House, and Rockefeller Museum.
Ohannessian was an artist, business entrepreneur and exile who helped his family navigate the horrors of the Armenian genocide until they found safety in Jerusalem. They survived death marches, forced conversion, betrayal and expulsion from their native Turkey, which was swept up in a frenzy of nationalism as the Ottoman empire breathed its last among the slaughter of World War I.
The craftsman was given safe passage to Jerusalem by British Mandate officials to repair the shattered ceramic façade of the Dome of the Rock. He was ultimately denied that commission, but Ohannessian, who began providing for his impoverished family at age 14 by marketing eggs, watched as the British set about rebuilding Jerusalem — a once-noble city ravaged by war, earthquakes, and neglect — and seized the opportunity to rebuild his own career. Using the skills he learned as an apprentice in Kutahya, the center of Armenian-Turkish ceramics, Ohannessian built his workshop into the heart of a new Jerusalem industry.
Ohannessian’s family ceased Jerusalem production in 1948, but the family of Megerditch Karakashian, one of the original artists he brought to the city in 1919, still produces handmade ceramics at its shop on the Greek Patriarchate Street in the Old City. The descendants of Nishan Balian, another of the original artists, produce a wide range of ceramic wares in their shop on Nablus Road.
“I knew there was an extremely compelling story of this man’s life, this man who was driven to ever-higher aesthetic values and practices, and that he had survived incredible upheaval — not once, but more. This story had not been told,” said Moughalian during a recent visit to Jerusalem.
“We knew Kutahya art had moved to Jerusalem, but we didn’t know exactly how. I knew my grandfather was a principal element in this movement of art from one place to another. I thought that if I dug hard enough, researched, went into archives and auction catalogues and looked for primary source materials, then I could honor him today by telling the story of his life and the story of his art,” she said.
Moughalian’s mother was Ohannessian’s daughter, who was born in Jerusalem, but left at the age of 20. Most of the family fled their comfortable apartment on Bethlehem Road in the neighborhood of Baka in 1948 when the area came under sniper fire and bombing from Jewish forces. Exiled for the second time, Ohannessian and his family sought refuge first in Cairo and then in Beirut, where he died in 1953.
“This very close family was scattered, became stateless and were never able to fully come back together again,” said Moughalian, a celebrated concert flutist who grew up in New Jersey.
“It’s amazing for me to be here in Jerusalem, which is where my mother was born. My grandfather’s art is all around the city. It’s amazing to be in the American Colony where when you pass through the lobby you see the most beautiful examples of his art,” Moughalian said, referring to the large tiled panels that adorn the entrance lobby of the famous hotel named for the neighborhood it’s in.
“My brother and I heard about Jerusalem every day growing up, it was always around us,” Moughalian said. “My mother had a very vivid way of describing the children she played with that came from all different backgrounds and spoke all different languages. Sometimes children played together who didn’t share a word in common but they made kites and they flew. It was a beautiful life. It was extraordinarily painful for her to leave.”
Ohannessian’s art was recognized around the world. His ceramics won a gold medal at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium in London, the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts in Paris, and the 1933 Chicago World Fair.
A chance catapult to fame
Ohannessian first learned the skills of the trade as an apprentice in Kutahya in Anatolia in western Turkey, the center of the tilemaking tradition.
“People would sit side by side with the masters in the studios and they would learn each element and creative step, from mixing the clays, curing them and pushing them through filters and all the technical knowledge, to making the glazes, to the process of firing, which was done before there were thermometers,” said Moughalian. “It was a wood-fired kiln. It had to be monitored through the entire process. These things were passed down from the master to the apprentice.”
A chance encounter with a young British diplomat with a taste for the orient set the young Ohannessian on the path to global fame. Mark Sykes arrived in Istanbul in 1911 on British government business, but took a detour to Kutahya in search of a ceramicist. Sledmere House, Sykes’s Yorkshire family home, had been destroyed by fire, and Sykes wanted to include an oriental tiled room in the renovation. He awarded the huge commission to Ohannessian. The tiles were fired in Kutahya and transported to Britain, where they were installed in 1914.
Among the stream of visitors to Sledmere from British high society was Sykes’s great friend Ronald Storrs, who in 1918 became the military governor of Jerusalem, where he founded the pro-Jerusalem Society that aimed to rebuild and beautify the city using traditional crafts. Sykes, meanwhile, Britain’s Middle East expert and co-author of the Sykes-Picot agreement that created most of the region’s modern borders, was in Damascus searching for Armenian tilemakers to help restore the Dome of the Rock.
“Sir Mark Sykes got an Armenian to make him a tiled room at his Yorkshire place of modern tiles imitating the old Damascus tiles very successfully,” Sir William Ormsby-Gore, a War Cabinet official scribbled on a Foreign Office report on the Dome of the Rock. “If he has not been massacred in the interval he might provide the necessary tiles.”
By some miracle, Ohannessian had survived. He found Sykes in December 1918 after reaching Aleppo, having endured the horrors of the genocide.
If he has not been massacred in the interval he might provide the necessary tiles
Sykes and his colleagues arranged for the ceramicist to travel to Jerusalem. Soon after, Ohannessian returned to Kutahya to recruit more tilemakers to join him in Jerusalem and begin the Dome of the Rock restoration. However, the Turkish architect heading the project decided that the 45,000 tiles required to restore the great monument should be made by Muslim tilemakers instead.
So Ohannessian developed alternative work. The British commissioned street names in English, Arabic and Hebrew for 46 streets in the Old City, each one made of 12 tiles. Ohannessian created black lettering on a white panel, framed with rich turquoise and cobalt blue that echoed the colors of the Dome of the Rock.
More commissions followed. Within a few years, the tiles made by Ohannessian and the other Kutahya families he invited to Jerusalem became part of the fabric of the city, despite lacking the special clays of Anatolia that had given the Kutahya tiles their distinctive hue.
Armenian genocide ‘freighted the air’
Moughalian said her relatives talked very little about the genocide while she was growing up, but she now realizes it “freighted the air” of her childhood home and was the source of painful, sorrowful silences. Raised in an area of New Jersey with many Jewish friends, she came to understand how horrors such as the Holocaust were passed down the generations.
“The genocide had not only torn us from the lands that had nourished us but in many cases had also deprived us of the indigenous materials from which we had forged our distinctive wares,” she writes.
“I felt an even deeper sense of love and respect for my grandfather’s unwavering devotion to his tradition and the way in which he had re-created his art in a geological environment that lacked almost every material essential to it,” she writes.
It’s an extraordinary story of talent, survival and determination, which Moughalian tells through official documents combined with family stories and traditions that the author absorbed as part of a rich storytelling culture.
“Many of the family anecdotes had been passed down through oral narration, sometimes over centuries. This was before my family was literate,” she said.
Using these stories, and her exquisite musical talent, Moughalian has crafted a narrative that is as lyrical as it is compelling. She relates the tragedy and triumph of Ohannessian’s personal adventures with a compassion and intimacy matched by impressive research into the broader historical context.
Moughalian never met her grandfather, but toward the end of her research she discovered that one of his American pieces was in a church in New York. After years of research, she finally identified it as the altar of the Bethlehem Chapel at Hanson Place Central United Methodist Church in Brooklyn — a building she passed almost weekly on her way to perform nearby.
“I’ve performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music countless times over the decades of my career as a musician in New York. Every time I exited the subway, I would walk within feet of my grandfather’s work. It was just on the other side of the wall, unbeknownst to me,” Moughalian said.
“When our parents and grandparents die, people say things like they’ll always be with you, but I didn’t understand how true that is,” she said.