My first memories of my maternal grandfather—the renowned Kütahya ceramicist David Ohannessian, who founded the art of Jerusalem Armenian ceramics in 1919—were tied to the few pieces of brilliantly glazed pottery that occupied an honored place in my childhood home in Highland Park, N.J. In my infancy, my father and mother—Arto and Pheme Ohannessian Moughalian—had escaped with me to the United States from Egypt. We were refugees from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalistic repressions. Earlier still, my mother had fled her own childhood home in Jerusalem during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and survived the 1952 riots and burning of Cairo.
Over time, I also learned that during the Armenian Genocide, my grandfather, grandmother and their small children had been deported from Kütahya to Aleppo and faced typhus and near starvation. But as an adolescent, all these harrowing iterations of violence and exile seemed overwhelming—too much for me to comprehend. The few conversations my mother and I had about them ended quickly. Clearly these subjects distressed her and I didn’t press for details. My grandfather had died before I was born, so my tactile and aesthetic experiences of those treasured ceramics in our New Jersey home formed a major part of his legacy to me. I spent my high school and college years studying music in New York City and preparing, like him, to devote my life to artistic pursuits.
Like so many other Armenian families, we had sustained multiple displacements. During my childhood in the 1960s and ‘70s, my parents wanted nothing more than a quiet American life in the suburbs with a home they could call their own. While my brother and I heard some of the stories of our mother’s Palestinian childhood and her father’s achievements, it was not until a few years before her death in 1995 that she committed all the family narratives to writing, with the help of her siblings. My mother’s oldest sister Sirarpi Ohannessian, a linguist and researcher, served as family historian of her father’s art, interviewing him extensively in Beirut before his death in 1953. She amassed letters, stencil patterns, glaze recipes, drawings and other records related to his trade and preserved photographs taken in her father’s “Dome of the Rock Tiles” Jerusalem workshop on the Via Dolorosa. Somehow, she managed to protect this trove through all her own displacements. Eventually, I would come to appreciate what a precious inheritance these papers represented.
Every so often, my mother would circulate an article about Jerusalem pottery and our grandfather’s work, or point me toward a book relevant to the subject. I noticed that nearly everything I read about David Ohannessian contained major errors—even very basic ones, such as the dates of his birth or death. What I found most egregious, though, in the narrative of the founding of this Armenian Jerusalem art was the omission of any mention of his arrest and deportation or the other trials he and his family endured during the Genocide.
It was not until 2007, long after my mother and my Aunt Sirarpi had died, that I finally felt ready to take on the serious task of learning more about my grandfather’s life and work and writing his biography. As composer Eve Beglarian once said to me, “You are one of the lucky ones. Your family left breadcrumbs behind.” This was true—our family had some artworks that had survived our various upheavals and we knew there were many more. And in my generation, we had, collectively, a wealth of documents that had not been examined by the art historians who had written about Jerusalem’s Armenian ceramic tradition. I thought that if I could locate my grandfather’s major tile installations, research how they were made, and travel in his footsteps, I might finally be able to answer the questions that remained about our family’s lives in Ottoman Turkey, my grandparents’ deportation and David Ohannessian’s re-establishment of his trade in Jerusalem. Technology was beginning to make it possible to survey some depositories’ holdings remotely, seek help in deciphering curling antique script, find immigration records, and even discover previously unknown genetic relations.
I spent the next decade in libraries and archives. Using the rich records my mother and her siblings left behind, I pieced together my grandfather’s professional life and movements and studied the tumultuous political and artistic trends around him. Some archival discoveries surprised me. One 1919 British Foreign Office note about Ohannessian and the precarious tiling of the Dome of the Rock read, “If he has not been massacred in the interval he might provide the necessary tiles.” I was stunned to find a folder of his deportation documents in the Ottoman Archives. My grandmother’s poignant self-description as a “Palestinian refugee” in her U.S. Alien Registration files struck a chord. Those handwritten records brought the reality of our family’s displacements much closer to my own life.
Reconstructing my grandfather’s history required going to the places he had lived in Turkey—a challenge I was not eager to face. While there in 2014, I walked through the remains of the old Armenian neighborhood in Kütahya, where our houses and once-lively schools stood as decaying ruins. I found the luminous embellishments my grandfather and his fellow workshop masters had left behind on important buildings in Istanbul, Konya and Kütahya—tiles whose stories have remained, until now, largely untold. With the help of Nancy Kandoian, the New York Public Library map specialist, I found the one historic map that showed my grandfather’s native village, Muradja. An archeologist friend overlaid it on Google Earth and pinpointed the exact location. Traveling to the now nearly silent town, I pictured my ancestors’ anguish as the entire population was forcibly marched away with only 24 hours’ notice in August of 1915. But all these experiences imprinted in me a fierce desire to tell the story of my grandparents’ survival and resilience and to record it for posterity. I wanted to illuminate the dedication with which my grandfather and a small group of artisans took one iconic Ottoman Armenian art—an art rooted in the clays and other minerals indigenous to Anatolia—and made it live again in Palestine, a place that lacked almost every material essential to it. I also wanted to honor my foremothers and forefathers by preserving some of the language of their storytelling. After a decade of work, Feast of Ashes: The Life and Art of David Ohannessian is my attempt to do so. I hope it may encourage others to do the same.