Book Review: Feast of Ashes

Feast of Ashes
The Life and Art of David Ohannessian
By Sato Moughalian
440 pp., Redwood Press
$21.88 hardcover

Feast of Ashes is a historian’s book, packed with detail, new information and useful illustrations.

The story is that of the author’s grandfather, David Ohannessian, who was a master of the art of ceramic making, first in Kütahya in Ottoman Turkey, and later in Jerusalem where he is known for establishing the tradition of Armenian pottery in Jerusalem which still thrives today. This story also describes in detail the travails of the Armenian people, the peripatetic nature of Armenian lives, imposed upon them by a capricious state.

The reader is treated to descriptions of remote Armenian village life and traditions in western Anatolia. Particularly interesting is the description of how a young bride was expected to behave in her new home. Contact with the outside world was infrequent even in the mid to late nineteenth century. That contact came in the form of tax inspectors who calculated the crop tithe and the head-tax on all non-Muslim men. In the case of Mouradchai—all the men paid it. Otherwise contact was with various missionaries whose one wish was to ‘save’ the Orthodox Apostolic Armenians from ‘dangerous rituals and beliefs,’ rituals which originated in the Armenian pagan past and, over millennia, had become incorporated in their daily Christian lives. However, the missionaries’ presence also meant that quality education was available in the larger towns of the area.

The family moved to Eskishehir which was a center of the art of carving meerschaum, the porous white stone of the region. Eskishesir was also a more cosmopolitan center where French, German, Greek, Turkish and Armenian were heard in the streets. In the 1890s, German and Austrian engineers had moved there to build the new railway junction—of so much significance later in the book. The young David was enrolled at l’École des Pères Français Saint Augustine de l’Assomption where he learned French as well as formal modes of (European) behavior.

All this is set against the louring history of the Balkan uprisings, the Hamidian Massacres of 1893 to 1896 and the beginning of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, under the mercurial rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Moughalian provides excellent commentary on the results of the uprisings, economic disasters, the machinations and interference of European countries.

David and his family live through all this. David’s father is unable to provide for the family and so at the age of fourteen, David becomes the breadwinner by taking a job as an assistant to the largest egg merchant and exporter in Eskishesir (egg whites were in demand for the production of light-sensitive glass plates and photographic paper). At 15, he rented a house and moved his (not small) family in, and provided for them.

His work eventually took him to Constantinople—the descriptions of which are particularly evocative. The ‘steely melismas’ from the minarets of mosques, the ‘thrum and motion’ of the place, Moughalian brings the place to life in amazing detail. David is a curious young man. He is enthralled by the great imperial mosques, the interiors clad in hundreds of thousands of colorful tiles. Here of course, begins the story of David’s art. We are indulged in the history of the art of the çini—called after the Chinese blue and white porcelain so popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There is a great exposition of the architecture of the mosques and the gorgeous designs of their tiles. David develops a passion for this art and resolves to apprentice himself to a master in Kütahya.

In Europe the fashion for Orientalism was well underway. Kütahya was famous for Armenian carpets, and ceramics, as well as the ever-fashionable meerschaum items. All of these and more were exported by English distributors from the port of Smyrna. Kütahya ceramics had been among the displays for the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle. This was followed by exhibitions in London and Vienna; Europeans had developed a considerable appetite for Kütahya tiles.

David began his apprenticeship in the studio of fellow Armenians, the Minassian brothers, but he also assisted the Turkish master Hafiz Mehmed Emin. His fluency in multiple languages and his bookkeeping skills (which he had perfected during his egg-selling days) made him indispensable. David was 23 years-old when he established his own studio which he called Société Ottomane de Faïence. He was now a respected member of the community and could marry his longtime love, Victoria.

The initial success of Ohannessian’s enterprise is set against the backdrop of the rising paranoia of the Ottoman state and the beginnings of Turkism. The early optimism of the Armenians, at the inception of the new ‘inclusive regime,’ turned to dismay as the Young Turks of the Committee of Union and Progress focused their attention on them to blame all the current ills of the empire on the ‘traitor Armenians.’

Life in the empire went on during this turbulent time; the new regime found time and money for new initiatives to restore some of Islam’s holiest sites. This was good for the Kütahya çiniçis and in particular Hafiz Mehmed Emin and David Ohannessian, who fashioned new tiles for these projects, which included the Great Mosque of Mecca, Sultan Selim’s mosque in Damascus and the Green Mosque and royal shrines in Brussa. Mehmed Emin subcontracted some of his commissions to Armenian tile makers; in a time of rising nationalism, the government awarded new commissions to Turkish masters only.  

Meanwhile in England in 1911, Sledmere House, the family seat of the Sykes family, caught fire. Although efforts were made to save whatever could be carried out, the house was gutted. Sir Mark Sykes, 6th Baronet, decided that rather than demolish the shell and build something new, he would use the old plans as a basis for reconstruction. Sykes was well versed in Oriental and Islamic art, having spent much time traveling in Asia and North Africa and through Turkey. He was determined to have a tiled room, ‘a tiled garden of paradise,’ using Ottoman tiles. His search led him to Kütahya and Ohannessian, whose tiles can be seen today at Sledmere.

In Ottoman Turkey, restrictive new laws for Armenians were invented daily. Armenian schools closed their doors. Moughalian unravels the veritable cat’s cradle of occurrences in the escalation of anti-Armenian sentiment of the time. On April 24, 1915 in the Ottoman capital, she vividly describes and clearly explains all those painful events, interspersed with descriptions of village family life and happenings. Of course, Mouradchai and Eskishehir did not escape the regime’s attention and the family was deported. Their property as well as that of their neighbors were immediately taken over by muhajirs—Balkan Muslim migrants.

The Ohannessians managed to survive—just—making many agonizing sacrifices along the way, eventually reaching Aleppo. Again, Moughalian’s descriptions and explanations of these events, are of great value, as she details the mechanics of life and survival in the deportation caravans—the vast numbers who died, the unimaginable suffering. Ohannessian managed to keep his family together in Aleppo until the end of the war, when he had an amazing stroke of luck.

In the meantime, in the autumn of 1917 the Turkish army had been driven out of Palestine by the British who occupied Jerusalem on December 9. In autumn 1918, the war was coming to an end and Ottoman Turkey conceded defeat after the fall of Aleppo on October 25, surrendering its Arab territories five days later. While the Armistice treaty of Mudros was in negotiation, Mark Sykes, now a member of the War Cabinet, set off on a special mission in Palestine and Syria, to observe conditions in the former Ottoman territories. He would also investigate the state of Armenian survivors and the possibilities for their repatriation.

In Jerusalem, when he got there, Sykes met with an old friend, Ronald Storrs, now the military governor of the city. Both men were concerned with the future of the holy places of significance to the three great religions of the area—the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall and Al-Aqsa Mosque with the Dome of the Rock. They both had a passion for decorative arts and resolved that these wonderful edifices, which had fallen into great dilapidation, should be saved and restored.

They discussed methods of restoration and made their recommendations. A gem of a memo from the Foreign Office is quoted by Moughalian:

“As to the new tiles which are required 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. If he has not been massacred in the interval he might provide the necessary tiles.”

In among the thousands of Armenian survivors in Aleppo, Sykes encountered Ohannessian.

Thus the Ohannessian family moved to Jerusalem, where David advised on the restoration of the great monuments and worked on re-tiling projects. There was no local suitable clay or other minerals for glazing and coloring tiles. David experimented with local materials which he found to be entirely unsuitable and eventually all the tons of clay and other materials had to be imported from Kütahya. At last, Ohannessian established a successful business. In 1922 he brought to Jerusalem some of the remaining Armenian ceramicists from Kütahya to work for him. Eight artisans—each a specialist in different facets of the craft—and their families accepted. Two of them were Nishan Balian and Mgrditch Karakashian who later left to found their own Armenian ceramics atelier named Palestine Pottery. The pottery and their descendants remain in Jerusalem, where their business thrives.

Sadly, Sir Mark Sykes died of influenza in 1919.

There is a fascinating section on the history of Armenians in Jerusalem and of the years during and after the genocide when the Armenian Convent of St. James, itself full of antique Kütahya tiles, became a major center for refugees—including David and his young family.

Eventually, the family moved into better accommodations and David’s business flourished, his family grew with the birth of several more children. He now owned the atelier on Via Dolorosa, called ‘Dome of the Rock Tiles’ and he was famous for having established Jerusalem’s Armenian ceramic art. Dome of the Rock Tiles participated in many exhibitions abroad, including London and Paris. David had many enthusiastic clients, among whom was the Marchioness of Londonderry who had tiles made by Ohannessian for the ‘Casita’ in the gardens at Mount Stewart House in Ulster, and Monsieur Maurice Blotière, a wealthy hosiery manufacturer in Corbie, France.

Unfortunately, once again there was great upheaval because of the Jewish and Palestinian conflict—much terrorism on both sides and heartless killings ensued. After the second World War, with the influx of Jews from Europe, the festering situation became intolerable for the Ohannessian family who left for Beirut, Cairo, Damascus and Yerevan.

The last chapter deals with Moughalian’s search for her grandfather’s work and piecing together of the family history. The sadness and emotion come through every page as she travels to the family’s place of origin—Mouradchai, now a hamlet of three or four homes; her searches in the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, her touching meetings with Mehmed Emin’s descendants.

This very moving book is not only an homage to the grandfather Moughalian never met, his life and his art, but it’s also an extraordinary historical document of the Armenian people.

R.P. Sevadjian
R P Sevadjian is the author of In the Shadow of the Sultan and The Darker Shadow, historical coming of age novels set during the Hamidian Massacres of 1896 and the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Sevadjian is a third-generation diasporan Armenian, whose family left Asia Minor in the 1800’s and was scattered across the world, no members remaining in their ancestral homelands. Born and raised in Africa, she now lives in the UK where she is currently researching the Armenians of Ethiopia and the work of B A Sevadjian about whom she has written several articles for Armenian Weekly. The Long Shadow, the final part of her Armenian Genocide Trilogy will be published in the summer of 2021.
R.P. Sevadjian

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