Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem: Ode to Diasporan Mettle

Film Tidenk  

It’s midnight. It’s over. My father and I are sitting in the living room waiting for the slightest sight of familiarity, and it finally appears — the suffix ian — prompting a prideful smile with an “eehhh, hay-eh”; a comforting feeling, to know that within the grand picture of a movie, there is an Armenian’s touch, no matter the influence, contributing to its production.

Gam ovkideh barsig eh?” 

Since the fourth century AD, with the advent of Armenia accepting Christianity as its national religion, an Armenian presence began to develop in Jerusalem, subsequently making it the oldest diaspora outside of Armenia. Centuries passed, cascaded by different ruling civilizations and dynasties: Byzantines, Rashidun Caliphate, Ayyubid, Mamluks, Ottomans, all the way up to the British Mandate of Palestine, before the eventual establishment of Israel in 1948. 

Take a moment, and let that sink in 17 centuries, around 1,600 years, from then until now, to the very words you’re reading today. In all honesty, just writing this down baffles me both in terms of the scale in time involved, as well as a stark reminder of our collective resilient identity amidst the merciless tumult of the ever-changing visage that is Jerusalem an insulated beauty spot managing to embellish its overall cultural heritage, none more exemplified by the arrival of Armenian ceramics in 1919, enduring to this very day. “Che, hay-eh.” 

This piece won’t offer an astute academic analysis of our history as brilliantly captured by the late Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, a cherished family friend and art historian, in her book The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem, Three Generations 1919-2003, nor will it be a distant homage to my ancestors a la Sato Moughalian’s Feast of Ashes. Though bias will be inevitable, I hope to capture as objectively as possible the enticing nature of ceramics in Jerusalem through my own ephemeral lens, foregoing decades of rivalrous tension, foreseeing a hopeful tomorrow for all of us still involved in maintaining this endangered craft.

The Origins of Armenian Ceramics in Jerusalem  

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the two burgeoning ceramic zones in the Ottoman Empire were in Iznik and Kutahya, wherein the latter was well-known in producing Armenian potters.

At the start of the 18th century, with the gradual decline of the Ottoman Empire, Kutahya had replaced Iznik as the dominant producer of cups, saucers, bottles, jugs and tiles which led to a massive industry, thousands of pieces rich, that bore Armenian inscriptions. Further, poetically, an order of 10,000 tiles was commissioned for the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem to decorate the Holy Sepulcher, typically portraying people from all social classes a striking breakaway from typical Islamic ceramic tradition, which adhered to more geometric motifs.

Throughout the centuries, “Kutahya Armenian Ceramics” had been a relatively primitive artform in terms of decoration. The Armenian aspect of this type of decoration was mostly of religious figurines and simple floral patterns. The heavily symmetric and detailed Iznik patterns were subdued to a simplistic form. It is due to the influence of artists, craftsmen and innovators alike, such as Mgrditch Karakashian and later Marie Balian, that the Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem parted from the traditional repetitive Iznik patterns and naive Kutahya designs. This new artform, although originating from Iznik and Kutahya, was born and only, to this day, exists in Jerusalem.

The Founders of Armenian Ceramics in Jerusalem  

It’s 1918. Under the British Mandatory Government in Jerusalem, the Pro-Jerusalem Society, founded by Sir Ronald Storrs, the military governor of the city, and Charles Robert Ashbee, a renowned architect and designer, torchbearer of the arts and crafts movement, sought to renovate the tiles on the Dome of the Rock. In the words of the general, “The magnificent tiles kept constantly falling off the walls and could be frequently found for sale in the city.”

Though claywork was present in Palestine, it was rudimentary despite its rustic appeal. Terracotta vessels, predominantly unglazed, were the prevalent pieces. Vases, jugs, bowls. Tiles? Non-existent, as far as glazed and decorative motifs were concerned. 

Enter David Ohannessian (1884-1952), a renaissance man whose expertise proved vital for the introduction of Armenian ceramics in Jerusalem.  

Born in the village of Mouradchai, in the western Ottoman Anatolian province of Hudavendigar, Ohannessian was a talented ceramicist, linguist and the head of the Kutahya Ceramic Association. Despite the efforts of the city’s governors to grant him immunity, Ohannessian, his wife Victoria and their three children were arrested and deported, joining the uprooting march of exile, destitution and death that befell the hundreds of thousands of Armenians under the merciless sun of the Der Zor desert. In Aleppo, they managed to survive due to their wealth, as well as the incidental encounter with British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes, a longtime admirer of his work and an even greater friend, who introduced him to various dignitaries. As fate would have it, this led him to Jerusalem and the founders of the Pro-Jerusalem Society.

Thus, the “Tiles of the Dome of the Rock” workshop was established in 1919 by Ohannessian in order to renovate the aging ceramic tiles of the Dome of the Rock, at the same time introducing the art of decorative ceramics to the Holy Land to help with the tourism industry.

To achieve this task, he invited a master potter whose expertise in kilns, throwing and ceramic raw materials was second to none, as well as another master artist with a vast knowledge of Kutahya patterns and designs branded in his head and hands. Their names were Neshan Balian, Sr. and Mgrditch Karakashian, respectively. Unfortunately, proper government  funding for the project was cut short. Undeterred, they continued producing tiles and pottery. Building decorations were being commissioned, including the famous Haj Mahmoud house at Jaffa Road, Nashashibi House in East Jerusalem, the hypnotic patterns at the Rockefeller Museum and the iconic murals at the American Colony Hotel. 

The creative balance between the three Kutahyans began to eventually interfere with their expressive independence, and like any family-based endeavor, tension (which is rarely talked about) began to affect their work. In 1922, Balian and Karakashian decided to part ways with Ohanessian and established Palestinian Pottery on 14 Nablus Road in East Jerusalem.

In 1948, the Arab-Israeli conflict erupted, leading to the establishment of Israel. Ohanessian left Jerusalem for Cairo and later went to Beirut to be with his daughters, where he died in 1953. His legacy between 1919 to 1948 cannot be overstated. Amidst arduous conditions and painstaking limitations, he managed in the span of 30 years to cement the identity of Armenian ceramics in Jerusalem. Though there has been a historical malentendu between the three giants — to which we do not possess a remedial closure as a whole to this day — had Ohanessian decided to circumvent the obstacles in a manner other than to extend his hand to both Balian and Karakashian, I dare not imagine what other fate would’ve awaited our ancestors. Thank you.

Balian-Karakashian work force circa 1950s


The Joint Workshop: Balian-Karakashian  

The combination of both a master potter and talented artist produced a range of some of the most stunning pieces to date. Balian was responsible for the preparation of ceramic clay, the production of the ceramic pieces by throwing on the wheel and press, ceramic color, glazes and kiln firing. Karakashian’s responsibility lay in preparing the designs, supervising the women painters and painting the pieces. 

Overcoming economic hardship and political instability, the two partners achieved in permanently establishing the character of Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem. Numerous ceramic projects were completed, both locally and internationally, including most notably the decoration of the Saint James Cathedral and the Tomb of the Patriarchs.  

After the death of their father in 1963, Stepan and Berj Karakashian continued the partnership with Neshan Balian, Sr. However, in 1964, the partnership dissolved amicably. The Karakashian brothers left and established Jerusalem Pottery in the Old City. In 1964, Neshan Balian, Sr. passed away, and the new era of Armenian ceramics began with Setrag and Marie Balian at the original location of 14 Nablus Road.

Neshan Sr. and Setrag Sr., father and son (circa 1940s)

Setrag and Marie Balian: Pain, Genius, Beauty – A Revolution in Ceramic Art

Marie Balian (1925-2017), née Alexanian, was born in Marseille, France. Shortly after her birth, her mother Manoushag settled in Lyon, having escaped the Genocide with her and her sister Haigouhi. She studied, primarily oil painting, at the prestigious Beaux Arts of Lyon where she received several first prizes. Due to financial difficulties, however, Marie’s degree was left unfinished. Manoushag worked in a textile factory on a meager salary; the untimely passing of her husband further increased the weight on her shoulders. A testament to this that perhaps best symbolizes the hardships they faced comes in the form of a basic staple in the French diet the baguette. Each morning, they would visit the local bakery, buy a loaf of bread and leave it in the cupboard for a day or two, because Manoushag couldn’t handle the softness of fresh bread. 

Setrag Balian, Sr. (1927-1997) was born in Jerusalem and attended the St. George’s School, where he discovered his passion for football and cricket; the former proved quite useful as he would be employed by companies for his skill alone, allowing him to travel with notables such as Barclays Bank and Iraqi Petroleum Company. He would eventually captain the Palestinian National Team. In the early 1950s, he decided to travel all the way to Winchcombe in the Cotswold Hills of Gloucestershire, England — eshun sadgadz degheh as we say — to further his education in ceramics. He studied under the tutelage of renowned potter Raymond Finch, whose influence became quite apparent upon his return when he began introducing more English-oriented pieces, including teapots, pitchers and teacups with handles, along with the more traditional Kutahyan vessels thrown by my great-grandfather. My father Neshan Balian, Jr. recounts that he was told by my grandfather to make simple cups (no handles!) of identical shape. After doing about 100 pieces, my great-grandfather approached him, and with what I can assume was of typical Balian tonality (very cynical!), told him that it was not the exact form which he had requested, whereby my grandfather squashed all the pieces he had made on the wheel and stormed out of the room. Their relationship was volatile, to say the least, and would prove quite prophetic as far as familial relationships progressed from generation to generation, on par with Dostoyevskian calamities! I digress, both chronically and thematically — my apologies — but stories like these, I could recite for days, and though it may seem at odds with respect to the content, it is of binding importance to the content of the art and craft itself. Whether it’s David, Neshan, Mgrditch, Setrak or Marie, it is the pain of being savagely ripped out of their homes that added an almost survivalist nature to their work, an experience wrought calling to persevere, to last, at the detriment of familial sensibilities.

On a much brighter note, Setrag on his way back to Jerusalem, upon visiting his cousins in Lyon, met and fell in love with Marie Balian. They married a year later in Bethlehem, Palestine. In 1955, they moved to Jordan where they had three children: Sylva, Neshan and Ohan.

For almost 10 years, due to the agreement between the partners Neshan and Mgrditch, Marie could not introduce her talent to the ceramic studio. In 1964, as the partners separated, Marie was finally able to pour her artistic knowledge and talent into the Balian studio. As she started moving away from the traditional static designs to the more free-form art, the repetitive Iznik patterns started to take life with the introduction of her dancing animals and moving trees. 

Marie Balian Murals in the Netherlands

World-famous art expert, the late Prof. Nurith Kenaan-Kedar and her assistant Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa described this transition best in a paper entitled “Design in Center and Periphery: Three Generations of Armenian Ceramic Artists in Jerusalem,” published by the Tel Aviv University: 

“In Marie Balian’s early works, it is already possible to detect efforts to draw gazelles and birds in motion. In contrast with the static images of the Karakashian-Balian workshop, Marie Balian presents her animals in motion, with their heads turned, running and galloping. Her birds also move, lifting and bending their heads. Not only do the images themselves move; Marie has also begun to develop a personal handwriting, characterized by a moving, wavy, and feminine line. In addition, she has a well-shaped vocabulary of images whose meanings must be understood. Her composition is ostensibly symmetrical, but in actuality, simultaneous narratives unfold on each side and at the top and bottom of the drawing.”

Marie’s artistic revolution combined with Setrag’s technical expertise paved the way for the international art scene to take notice of the Balian studio. This in turn translated into increased media coverage, local and international custom ceramic projects and worldwide museum exhibitions:

1986: “The Armenian Pottery of Jerusalem” Eretz Israel Museum Tel Aviv, Israel 

1992: “Views of Paradise” Smithsonian Museum, Washington, DC, USA 

2000: “Birds of Paradise” Eretz Israel Museum Tel Aviv, Israel
2020: Balian – 100 Years of Ceramic Excellence. (Posthumously, alongside the works of former greats as well as the modern status of that legacy today)

Marie and Setrag Balian

Unity through Adversity

It’s 1948. The Arab-Israeli War is in full flow. Livelihood in Jerusalem is a day-to-day struggle. Abed Rashed is 13 years old, diligently observing Neshan Balian, Sr., through one of the demolished walls of the building on the street that is now 75 Nablus Road. Every day, he would perch over that same spot and watch a master potter at work on a manual throwing-wheel — instant fascination by the craft. Every night, he would sneak into the premises, sit on the very same wheel, throw a few pieces of his own, and dispose of the residual clay clumps in order to thwart suspicion. Luckily for him, inventory was a foreign concept at that time. One day, after months of unorthodox learning, Neshan Balian, Sr. hawkishly spots him, and invites him over, asking the young boy if he likes pottery. Abed nods and asks if he could use the wheel. My great-grandfather goes one step further; he challenges him to produce two near-identical vases, one after the other, evidently having astutely understood that a culprit was indeed practicing after hours. “I’ll get you a brand new bicycle” was the deal. The self-taught novice produced the two pieces. Months passed, and there was no bicycle in sight. Neshan went to visit relatives in Beirut, Lebanon at a time when borders were permeable in the Middle East. Upon his return, as he promised, he called the amateur potter over to reveal the bicycle, brought all the way from Lebanon. No Fedex, DHL or Amazon. Just a man’s word to a cunning young boy, who became the longest-working potter in our family, after my grandfather and great-grandfather.

Abed Rashed preparing a kiln for firing

Whenever we came back from school to the factory, he’d greet us with a casual: “incheee dzooo!” having picked up a few expressions after half a century of work surrounded by Armenians. His sons, Mhannad and Tamer, would give us an assortment of pottery to sandpaper the edges, followed by a clean swipe with a water-soaked sponge to remove residual impurities, before the eventual bisque firing, making the ware impervious to water, considerably more resistant to handling, all the way to the graceful strokes of the following women in charge of drawing and painting the plethora of varying pieces: Mariam Qawasmi, Jihad Alon, Khatoun Koutoujian, Faya Ba’aleh, Ghada Rashed, Manal Rashed, Tahani Za’anin and Amani Za’anin.

A list of names to join the aforementioned ones. A list of names that were and are the unsung heroes of family businesses of this ilk. Though it is the vision and talent of the names bearing the work that is celebrated, there is an often criminally underappreciated aspect to the loyalty of those who work in tandem with us the craft cannot survive without the craftsmen and painters, nor they without our cohesion. In a historically gorgeous melting pot that is Jerusalem, marred with even greater historic hostilities — 1948, 1967, Intifadas, annexations — we managed to distill, inadvertently, out of the ardor of necessity, a synergic understanding that to this day transcends the dogmatic fracas of religious and political inclinations a work out of family within a family of workers. There were no quotas, no token hires, no diversity for the sake of it. There was just a need for one another. Period.

First-Generation Armenian Ceramicists  

The triumvirate Armenian families were instrumental in the propagation of the craft and artform throughout Jerusalem; however the subsequent success garnered the attention of Palestinian families in Hebron, which spawned forth the creation of a market that catered to the massive touristic influx of the Holy Land. A handmade and painted ceramic mug valued at 100 shekels could now find its “equivalent” in the Old City of Jerusalem at 10 shekels a piece. Measly labor and production costs within Hebron permitted Hebronites to stack their factories with employees, widening their distribution quantity and range. Am I bitter? A bit, of course. To watch your family’s heritage, refined through a generational struggle, countless sacrifices, unwavering commitment, reduced to knock-off versions, would pain anyone. Those who claim otherwise should pay a visit to Gepetto. In terms of business acumen, however, my utmost respect to them.  

Nestled between them are first-generation Armenian ceramics studios. Historically, there has been bad blood between the different families. Involuntary arrogance from our side, involuntary resentment from their side. Or voluntary? At this point, I don’t know, and I don’t care. Armenia has lost a great deal of Artsakh, countless young souls extinguished, with the country on the verge of a civil war, and a profound disbelief reverberating throughout the entire diaspora, the tenacity and veracity of our Armenianhood in doubt — Haghteloo enk, Haghtevetsank. Though this kind of rhetoric has no place in an article of this nature, today it should. Every single Armenian family has a story drenched in blood and sweat. Praban, khanootban, pejishg, negaritch, kerogh, oosootschuhi, barogh, mechanist, receptionist, engineer, dmbo, pnti, khelatsi, artist. It doesn’t matter. Not today. Petty rivalries are a luxury we can ill afford in these trying times. Kich enk. A mutually sincere respect toward one another ought to be the first step of a better Armenia, of any  Armenia (I digressed, but guh nerek).

Right in front of the Armenian Convent, you’ll find Harout Sandrouni’s workshop. Since 1982, Sandrouni, a civil engineer, has managed it relentlessly, with his scientific formation serving as a necessary tool as far as coloring, glazing and firing are concerned. On our way out of the convent, my brother Setrag Balian, Jr. and I would frequently be halted to a pleasant stop upon hearing his distinct high-pitched voice shout, “Baliaaaaaaan!” We’d converse with him on a wide range of  topics, and he’d frequently mention how our grandfather had offered him advice when he was starting out and was always cordial and inviting whenever he visited our factory on Nablus Road.

Further down the road, preceding the tunnel that leads to Armenian Patriarchate Road, you’ll find Garo and Sonia Sandrounis’ Studio. About 15 minutes away, near the New Gate (Bab il Ijdeed), you’ll find George and Dorin Sandrounis’ Studio. Of the three Sandrouni families, in terms of sheer artistic talent, Dorin’s flare and grace with a brush stands out the most, with her freehand drawing/painting style producing a wide variety of mesmerizing pieces, coupled with George’s management, an art connoisseur and ceramicist in his own right.

Near the Zion Gate, you’ll find Hagop Antreassian’s Studio. Antreassian is a man with a penchant for the theatrical, indeed imbued in his very character as exemplified by his passion for theater, having directed and acted in several plays, whilst also being a longtime leader within our Armenian community. A talented artist, his pieces bear a noticeable purple hue with motifs primarily inspired by ancient Armenian manuscripts, folklore and mythology. Antreassian is a close friend of my father and leads a family that brightens the day of strangers and friends alike.

Last but not least, you’ll find Lepejian’s Studio, located about a few meters away from the Armenian Convent. A grotto-like entrance gives you access to a world of colors and artistry. The studio is owned and operated by Vic Lepejian, who holds a master’s degree in applied arts from The Academy of Fine Arts in Yerevan. He works with his son Bedig Lepejian and Irene Kaplanian. A quality that is truly unique to his work is the representation of Jerusalem’s different landscapes and sceneries through his own stylized miniature vision coupled with earthy colors. He also invokes Christian iconography, as well as traditional Armenian motifs. 

Fourth-Generation  

To this day, a century later, the Balian family is the only remaining one that works directly with our own clay, from the shaping and molding, all the way to the final kiln firing. In addition to still using glaze recipes passed down through generations of tests, upon tests, upon tests, we also rely heavily on our traditional designs, amplified by a work ethic that strives for creativity and innovation. I promised objectivity to the best of my ability, but there is one aspect of our work for which I will shamelessly embrace subjectivity, and that is Neshan Balian, Jr. my father. For all the aforementioned names, I can write the length of this article, if not more, for the accomplishments and nourishment he brought forth to the field of our ceramics — Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem — both on a technical and personal level, expanding the production as well as the refinement of our artform to the United States, Jordan and Lebanon, the latter two studios still operational. Professional partners from Jerusalem, Spain and Italy, to name a few, would frequently seek his invaluable ceramic expertise, an experience he would often gladly relay, with no conditions or reservations. Though my background is in chemistry, he nonchalantly effaced my understanding of the physical and chemical properties of the raw materials and coloring oxides. Experience trumping education. Though my brother’s enviable social sensibilities were second to none, he often surprised us both with his ability to fully convey the importance of the legacy we carry, our own attachment to it and the dangers that it entails. There is a fine line between survival and extinction, a line vivified by a stubborn adherence to traditionalism. Adapt to modernity, and carry your traditions for a day where the market permits your romanticism a lesson that we — myself, my brother and sister—  learned from my father, a very hard learned one, through frequent clashes marred with rage, tears and contempt. Today, we balance a pragmatic approach — with our use of  digital ceramic inkjet technology, for a market that seeks precision ceramics — with a traditional approach, for the discerning observer who appreciates the heritage and effort required in maintaining such a tradition in an increasingly mechanized industry. “Yalla dzo, barab paner” my father would say, shunning any praise for his near half-a-century commitment to our family. You can question my bias, obviously, but you can also ask anyone who has met him and put such questions to rest.

Neshan Balian Jr. with a new design (2022)

This year, before the difficulties of the pandemic, we celebrated 100 years of Armenian ceramics in Jerusalem at the Holy See of Etchmiadzin in Armenia, a monumental achievement given the hardships that we’ve faced as a people. As I looked around, figuratively, a while after the exhibition, to notice the absence of my aunt and uncle — Sylva Kalbian and Ohan Balian — I wondered (perhaps greedily) given their success in their own respective fields away from ceramics, the even higher heights our family could have reached had they managed to put aside differences in working toward a common goal. Armenian families, particularly within the diaspora, had to live with transgenerational trauma, a burden that very rarely sewed the threads of reconciliation amidst personal quarrels. And for that, I thank my grandmother, Lucine from Sassoun, for dispelling that  norm and raising a daughter, Siba Dawani Balian, who instilled within us a familial love that overcame the hurdles of my paternal family, allowing us today, to acknowledge one another — Neshan, Nanor, Setrag, Kegham — and work. No Mam, no Balian Ceramics of Jerusalem today.

Setrak Balian Jr. with former President Armen Sarkissian, explaining the history and heritage of Armenian Ceramics.
Kegham Balian

Kegham Balian

Kegham Balian is the production and marketing manager at Balian - Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem, more than a century old family-business. He also writes for This Week in Palestine and additionally translates Armenian literature into English, hoping to extract and display pertinent lores that seek to highlight the depth of our 5000 year old culture.
Kegham Balian

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