A Tantalizing Tour of Jerusalem’s Magical Armenian Tiles

The Rockefeller Museum’s celebration of a century of Armenian art is an inspiration for lovers of the dazzling ceramics. There are many sites where you can see the handiwork of the city's famed ceramicists

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The Rockefekker Archaeological Museum. On the right, Armenian Tiles from the interior court of the Rockefeller museum. Made by David Ohannessian 1934.
The Rockefekker Archaeological Museum. On the right, Armenian Tiles from the interior court of the Rockefeller museum, made by David Ohannessian in 1934.Credit: Eli Posner and Laura Lachman
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Once you set foot in “A Glimpse of Paradise” – the year-long exhibition at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum celebrating 100 years of Armenian ceramics in Jerusalem – you’re overcome with a fierce desire to venture out into the city to see more examples of this breathtaking art form. Still, there is nowhere better to begin your acquaintance with these iconic ceramics then at than the beautiful Mandate-era Rockefeller, a branch of the Israel Museum located in East Jerusalem near Herod’s Gate.

In the courtyard of the Rockefeller Museum you encounter a beautiful fountain made entirely of blue ceramics, which was created in 1934 by the Armenian artist David Ohannessian. It is a beacon of Armenian ceramics in this ancient city, and as you gaze at it from one of the benches in the courtyard, an unearthly peace and descends upon you.

Tile bearing a yellow cross, Kütahya, 18th century.
Tile bearing a yellow cross, Kütahya, 18th century.Credit: Laura Lachman / The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Ohannessian was among the Armenian artists invited in 1919 to renovate the Dome of the Rock on the Old City’s Temple Mount, aka Haram al-Sharif, a site that is holy to Jews, Moslems and Christians. The imposing, octagonal Dome of the Rock with its dazzling facade of predominantly blue tiles, is a spectacular example of ancient Islamic architecture but is not a mosque. It was built in the 7th century and only covered with tiles during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. The original tiles, tens of thousands of them, were brought over from Turkey; the ones used in the renovation were made in Jerusalem.

The Dome of the Rock is today the most impressive “representative” of Armenian ceramics in Jerusalem, but other examples of this art, including those on show at the museum and others at sites that are easier to visit, are also very beautiful – and particularly exhilarating for lovers of the color blue.

In any event, after arriving in Jerusalem a century ago to work on the Dome of the Rock project, the Armenian artists quickly adopted local motifs, some of them biblical. They combined them with traditional ones from Turkey to create a new art form that somehow gives the viewer today the feeling that it has always been here.

Tiles from the Dome of the Rock, 19th century (removed during the Jordanian renovation).
Tiles from the Dome of the Rock, 19th century (removed during the Jordanian renovation). Credit: Laura Lachman / Courtesy of l’École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem

Some of the tiles that once adorned the Dome of the Rock are on show at the Rockefeller, which is itself adorned with lovely ceramics. The exhibition there, on through next September, was curated by Fawzi Ibrahim, assisted by curator Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, and organized in cooperation with Yad Ben Zvi, the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry, and the East Jerusalem Devlopment company. Also on display are tile fragments that were collected after being shattered by vandals at David’s Tomb on Mount Zion, in the Old City. Prominent are hand-painted tiles created in the Armenian workshops that are still in operation in Jerusalem today, presided over by descendants of the families arriving in the last century. As becomes clear in the exhibition, the Armenian artists never differentiated between Jews, Christians or Muslims: As far as they were concerned, all of them were excellent customers.

Founding families

In addition to the family of David Ohannessian, who arrived from Kutahya in central Turkey, the other legendary families that (still) stand out in this artistic realm in Jerusalem are those of Nishan Balian and Mgrditch Karkashian. It is important to recall the tragic events of the Armenian genocide that erupted in Turkey beginning in 1915 – during which between 1 million and 1.5 million Armenians, half of the population, were killed – in order to understand the desire of these ceramicists and painters to immigrate to and work in Jerusalem. In 1919 they accepted an invitation from the officials of the nascent British Mandatory government and arrived to renovate the Dome of the Rock; a short time later, however, they abandoned the job, which at the time seemed almost impossible, and began working independently.

Egg-shaped hanging ornament bearing a date and a dedication in Armenian, written by a pilgrim to the Church of the Holy Archangels (Deir Al-Zeitoun) in Jerusalem, Kütahya, 1739.
Egg-shaped hanging ornament bearing a date and a dedication in Armenian, written by a pilgrim to the Church of the Holy Archangels (Deir Al-Zeitoun) in Jerusalem, Kütahya, 1739. Credit: Laura Lachman / The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem

The establishment soon afterward of a joint studio located on the Old City’s famed Via Dolorosa marked the beginning of a magnificent local, Armenian ceramic legacy. The three-way partnership lasted for only three years, however; in 1922, the Balian and Karkashian families opened their own separate workshop on Nablus Road, just outside the Old City walls. They worked there for over 30 years until the death of Mgrditch Karkashian in 1954, whereupon his descendants decided to open a studio on the Via Dolorosa.

For their part the Ohannessians continued to work out of their premises on the Via Dolorosa until the War of Independence in 1947-49. During this period, all the Armenians resided in West Jerusalem, initially in what is called the Frankfurter House on Bethlehem Road. The Jerusalem Municipality allowed them to worship in the old community hall of the Templer community in the German Colony, nearby. David Ohannessian began working as the caretaker of that building and moved into it; he died in 1953 but his descendants still live in the area.

Ohannessian was among the Armenian artists invited in 1919 to renovate the Dome of the Rock on the Old City’s Temple Mount, aka Haram al-Sharif, a site that is holy to Jews, Moslems and Christians.
Ohannessian was among the Armenian artists invited in 1919 to renovate the Dome of the Rock on the Old City’s Temple Mount, aka Haram al-Sharif, a site that is holy to Jews, Moslems and Christians.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Another leading figure among the city’s Armenian ceramicists was Marie Balian (née Alexanian), who was born in Turkey in 1925. She grew up in France but studied in England, where she met and married a distant cousin, a ceramicist named Setrak Balian; they later went to live in Amman.

After the death of her grandfather, Nishan Balian, Marie moved with Setrak to Jerusalem in 1965 and opened a studio at 14 Nablus Road, called Palestine Pottery. After the Six-Day War in 1967, Balian forged close relations with then-Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, and was commissioned to create many works in the western part of the capital: One of them is housed in the President’s Residence. Marie Balian died just two years ago.

Where to go

Fawzi Ibrahim, curator of “A Glimpse of Paradise,” has composed a list of sites in Jerusalem where you can see the handiwork of its famed Armenian ceramicists. These are all public places that can be visited for free – a real pleasure for anyone who seeks to follow in the footsteps of these artists. Some of the interest here comes from the context; the walls of tiles look different in each and every site. In a way, they both “paint” the place in which they were installed but at the same time are painted by the place in return, as well.

The Rockefeller Archaeological Museum. Celebrating 100 years of Armenian ceramics in Jerusalem.
The Rockefeller Archaeological Museum. Celebrating 100 years of Armenian ceramics in Jerusalem. Credit: Laura Lachman

Koresh Street, a good place to start, is an example of this. At first this street looks worn and faded, but the moment you see the shiny, colorful wall of ceramic tiles there, somehow the entire appearance of the street improves too.

Koresh Street, The Wall of 1,000 Tiles, by Marie Balian: In 2004, as part of the renovation of Koresh Street, in the heart of a Armenian compound in downtown Jerusalem, Marie Balian – who was commissioned by city hall – created an intricate, 24-square-meter work in her characteristic style, and donated it to the city. The work, “Glimpse of Paradise” (which gave its name to the Rockefeller exhibition), is said to be made of 1,000 tiles. Date palms and rare birds adorn the wall, along with sailboats, flowers, peacocks and lions.

Contemporary local Armenian artists: left to right: Garo and Sonia Sandrouni, Harout Sandrouni, Rena Panoyan, George and Dorin Sandrouni.
Contemporary local Armenian artists: left to right: Garo and Sonia Sandrouni, Harout Sandrouni, Rena Panoyan, George and Dorin Sandrouni.Credit: Eli Posner / Israel Museum, Jeruslaem

American Colony Hotel: Located at 1 Louis Vincent Street in East Jerusalem, the legendary American Colony has for many years been rated among the finest hotels in the Middle East. It has unique charm and limitless stories woven into its past about mysterious figures, from Israel and neighboring countries, who met here clandestinely and exchanged secrets. A cup of coffee there is a pure pleasure, even for those who cannot afford to stay in one of the luxurious rooms. Flanking its entrance are magnificent hand-painted works in shades of blue and azure – among the most beautiful created by David Ohannessian.

Balian Ceramics of Jerusalem: 14 Nablus Road is still the site of Balian Ceramics of Jerusalem – the family-run store and museum, where you can read about the Balians’ history and buy decorative ceramic tiles and other household items. Often visitors can see women at work there, painting tiles.

Palm Tree in the Garden by Marie Balian. Tile panel, 2000.
Palm Tree in the Garden by Marie Balian. Tile panel, 2000. Credit: Eli Posner / Collection of Neshan Balian Jr. and family, Jerusalem

Legacy Hotel: In the lobby of the Legacy Hotel at 29 Nablus Road – just a few minutes’ walk from the Old City’s bustling Damascus Gate – is an especially large and attractive work created by the joint Karkashian-Balian studio. Depicting the Garden of Eden, featuring the image of a large fruit-bearing tree and pictures of deer and other animals, it is composed of dozens of colorful tiles.

St. Andrew’s Church.  the complex was designed by British architect Clifford Holliday, and has a mixture of Eastern and Western motifs – and also features the work of David Ohannessian.
St. Andrew’s Church. Has a mixture of Eastern and Western motifs – and also features the work of David Ohannessian.Credit: Paul Arps

The Scots Guesthouse, St. Andrew’s Church: Across from Liberty Bell Park in West Jerusalem, at 1 David Remez Street, is the Scots Guesthouse and St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church, which are separated by a tower. Dedicated in 1930, the complex was designed by British architect Clifford Holliday, and has a mixture of Eastern and Western motifs – and also features the work of David Ohannessian.

Jerusalem House of Quality: The clinics of St. John’s Hospital were once housed in this beautiful building at 12 Hebron Street, with its arches and courtyard – also designed by Holliday. Today it houses the Jerusalem House of Quality, an arts center, and is located across from the Cinematheque. In 1925, David Ohannessian covered the walls of a room here with his signature Armenian tiles, inspired by ancient mosaics. The overall appearance is of Arabic calligraphy that expresses the infinity of God.

British and Foreign Bible Society Building: At No. 8 Safra Square, where the offices of the Jerusalem Municipality are located, is a 1926 building (also designed by Holliday), which housed the local offices of the British and Foreign Bible Society, a charitable missionary organization. The original, stone structure was four stories high and integrated Armenian artwork in the form of blue ceramic tiles.

Armenian Tiles from the interior court of the Rockefeller museum. Made by David Ohannessian 1934.
Armenian Tiles from the interior court of the Rockefeller museum, made by David Ohannessian in 1934.Credit: Eli Posner

Villa Harun al-Rashid: A short distance from Jerusalem’s downtown at 18 David Marcus Street, near the Jerusalem Center for the Performing Arts in the Talbieh neighborhood, stands a stately house. It was built in 1926 by Hanna Ibrahim Bisharat and named after the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, portrayed in “The Thousand and One Nights.” The facade and other parts of the two-story villa are adorned with panels of blue Armenian ceramic tiles.

Villa Harun al-Rashid.
Villa Harun al-Rashid.Credit: Pierre Turgeman

Dar Issaf Nashashibi Center: The Dar Issaf Nashashibi villa in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood – at 30 Har Hazeitim Road – became the Dar Issaf Nashashibi Center for Culture, Arts and Literature a few years ago. The Gallery Café operates on the ground floor and the other floors house a gallery, a large public library, a collection of ancient manuscripts and classrooms. Along with art shows, theater performances, concerts and other cultural events take place here. On the beautiful façade of the building – above the windows, windowsills and between the balconies – one cannot miss the telltale blue Armenian tiles. The original work was done by David Ohannessian, but probably a good part of it has since been restored or replaced.

Haj Mahmoud House: Not far from Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, at 222 Jaffa Road, is a four-story building, dating to 1925. It also boasts the handiwork of David Ohannessian, around the windows, easily visible from the third floor and higher up.

Masu House: At 25 Emek Refaim Street in the Germany Colony, at the corner of Emile Zola Street, is a two-story stone edifice built by the Masus – a wealthy Arab Christian family. Armenian tiles of various styles adorn the entryway as well as the arched passageway on pillars, above it.

Contemporary local Armenian artists: left to right: Vic Lepejian, Neshan Balian, Hagop Antreassian, Hagop Karakashian
Contemporary local Armenian artists: left to right: Vic Lepejian, Neshan Balian, Hagop Antreassian, Hagop KarakashianCredit: Eli Posner / Israel Museum of art

St. Saviour Church and Armenian Cemetery: In a niche in the eastern wall of this church on Mount Zion, near the entrance, is an altar decorated in 1928 by David Ohannessian in honor of his parents. Nearby is another tiled work, which some experts say is Ohannessian’s as well, which takes up an entire wall and features an Armenian cross at its center. In the cemetery here it is possible to see the work of Marie Balian – on the grave of her husband Setrak, who died in 1997.

Cathedral of St. James: The streets of the Armenian Quarter of the Old City, which takes up about one-sixth of the area inside the walls and is home to some 2,000 people, are closed to the public, except for organized groups that have ordered tours in advance. However, the Cathedral of St. James and the Armenian Museum nearby are open to the general public (entry to the cathedral is permitted only between 3 P.M. and 3:30 P.M. daily). Panels of Armenian ceramics adorn the courtyard – the handiwork of the Balian-Karkashian family workshop. Another small panel at the site was created by Marie Balian.

The Dome of the Rock is seen through houses in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Dome of the Rock is seen through houses in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

Hessed Verahamim Synagogue: Above the entrance to the Sephardic Hessed Verahamim Synagogue – founded in 1925 and located at 18 Carmel Street in the Mazkeret Moshe section of the Nahlaot neighborhood in downtown Jerusalem – is an attractive inscription fashioned from Armenian tiles. The doors of the synagogue are ornamented in silver and one of its walls has a drawing of the alleyway of the Western Wall.

The Church of the Pater Noster: The Catholic Church of the Pater Noster, located on the Mount of Olives, boasts works by the finest Armenian ceramists, from Ohannessian to today, including panels with the Lord’s Prayer hand painted on them, in 143 languages.

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