Armenians in Jerusalem: Working and Creating in the Holy Land


BY MATTHEW KARANIAN

The Armenians of Jerusalem form one of the oldest Armenian communities outside of Armenia.  The Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem may be one of the most Armenian places in the world, too.

But this community is more than just old and Armenian. The community also controls, through the Armenian Church, at least a part of every major Christian Holy Site in the region, including the birthplace and crucifixion of Jesus, and the Tomb of the Virgin Mary.

With such a rich cultural legacy, one might guess that the Armenians of Jerusalem are strong and thriving. They are not. If the Old City were divided up today, the Armenians might barely command one street. They certainly would not lay claim to an entire Quarter, as they have for centuries.

The survival of the community is today in peril. The population is dwindling. Armenian property rights are under attack. Even Armenian pilgrims are fewer in number.

Matthew Karanian—a Pasadena lawyer and the author of several books about Armenia—traveled to Jerusalem earlier this year as part of a research and photography project. Karanian is the co-author, with Robert Kurkjian, of the best-selling travel guide Armenia and Karabagh: The Stone Garden Guide. This week we present parts three and four of a series about the Jerusalem Armenians that Karanian has written and photographed for Asbarez.

Working and Creating in Jerusalem

The Armenians of Jerusalem occupy a distinct Quarter of Jerusalem, but it’s easy for a casual visitor to miss them. Their community exists mostly within a private and walled compound. This compound is wholly within the Armenian Quarter, which is itself within the stonewalls of the Old City of Jerusalem. To reach the Old City, travel to the seam where the two halves of Jerusalem meet.

The so-called seam line is the place where east and west meet.

The west of Jerusalem is mostly Jewish. This is the Jerusalem that Israel proclaimed as its capital some sixty years ago, shortly after winning its independence.

The east of Jerusalem is populated mostly by Palestinians. This is the Jerusalem that Palestinians claim as the capital of a future independent Palestine and which Israel has occupied since 1967.

Situated between these two halves, and atop Biblical Mt. Zion, lies the Armenian Quarter of the Old City.

The Armenian Quarter is public, much as the Little Armenia section of Los Angeles is public. But the Quarter has a distinct and fixed geographic location, and most of the properties within the Quarter are Armenian-owned.

Inside the Quarter exists a smaller Armenian Compound that is private and gated. A visitor cannot simply wander around the Compound without an invitation. There are guards who see to this.

Getting an invitation is a simple matter, however, if you speak a bit of Armenian.  George Hintlian, a local historian and resident of the Armenian Quarter, explains it thus: “If you’re Armenian, you just say it—in Armenian– and you won’t be stopped” from entering. I tested his theory. He was right. The words Yes Hye-em got me waved through without a fuss.

This Compound is the heart of the Armenian Patriarchate—the Armenian religious order that shares or controls many of the major religious shrines, and which operates the famous and historic St. James Cathedral. The 50-or so active clergymen (there are no women) of the Patriarchate live here.

A Refugee Photographer

Many of Jerusalem’s secular Armenian community—roughly 500 or so—live within the three-foot thick walls of the Armenian Compound, as well. Although the Armenian community of Jerusalem boasts a heritage of nearly about 1,700 years, some of the current residents trace their lineage back only to 1915 when their parents or grandparents—more than 8,000 of them—had been welcomed here as refugees from the Armenian Genocide.

Some of these refugees arrived as orphans.

A handful of these young children defied the rules and carved their names in the stonewalls of their orphanage. In another era, under different circumstances, these carvings might be viewed as graffiti. But here they are preserved as part of the history of the Genocide and of the Armenian refugees of Jerusalem.

Kevork Kahvedjian is the son of one of these refugees.

Kevork’s father was Elia Kahvedjian. Elia was a child-survivor of the Genocide.

Back in 1915, when Elia was only seven years old, he was deported from his village and sent on a march toward the deserts of Syria. He and his mother had managed to survive for the duration of the death march. After some time they had found themselves at the end of the line, in a place called Der Zor.

Kevork—Elia’s son—told me the story of his family while we sat drinking Arabic coffee in his photo studio. A steady stream of customers interrupted the story, but Elia never became distracted. He knew the story too well.

In Der Zor, Elia’s mother had been desperate to save her small son. Seeing no alternative, she gave him to a Kurd who promised that he would spare his life.

Elia’s life was saved, but his mother’s was not.

Little Elia watched while his mother was lead away to a hilltop and murdered. While still dumb with grief, Elia was sold to a Christian man in exchange for two gold coins. When this man re-married, about a year later, his new wife threw Elia out. By the time he was eight, or nine, or maybe ten years old, Elia had found his way to an orphanage in Nazareth, where one of his teachers was a photographer. Elia may not have realized it, but this teacher gave him a life.

Elia, inspired by his teacher, learned to become a photographer himself. When Elia had reached the mature age of 16, and the orphanage had therefore sent him out, he was savvy enough to find his way to Jerusalem, where he went to the Armenian Quarter for assistance.

He was taken in, and he flourished.

And so in 1924, at age 16, Elia opened a photography studio—Elia Photo Service—using the knowledge that he had gained working with the photographer in the Nazareth orphanage.

He moved his shop’s location within Jerusalem a couple of times, but the studio has been open for business continuously since that day in 1924. Elia’s son Kevork now operates the shop from a tiny storefront in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. Kevork makes camera repairs. He sells print film to the occasional visitor who doesn’t have a digital camera. But most of his sales appear to be the matted black-and-white prints that he makes from his father’s original negatives of historic Palestine and Jerusalem.

Just a few years back, Kevork honored his father by publishing Elia’s historic black-and-white images of Jerusalem in a book that he named Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes. He is at work on a second book, Then and Now, which will juxtapose his father’s historic images with current photographs of the same scene.

The pioneer photographer of the Armenian Quarter was not Elia, however, but was Yessayi Garabedian, the Armenian man who became Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1865.

Garabedian had been a photographer before becoming Patriarch, and after his elevation within the Church he worked to educate other photographers. Largely because of his efforts, the Armenians are credited as among the first photographers of Jerusalem.

Unless the demographics of the region change, history may record Kevork Kahvedjian as one of the last Armenian photographers of Jerusalem. Kevork’s son is also a photographer, and is thus the third generation of Kahvedjians to work as photographers in Jerusalem.

But by most accounts, there are fewer than 2,000 Armenians living in all of Israel today, most of them in Jerusalem. Before 1948, the Armenian population in Palestine was about 35,000. If the population trend continues, it’s unlikely that Jerusalem will be home to another generation of Armenian photographers.

Armenian Ceramics

In the Old City of Jerusalem, one of the worst kept secrets of the marketplace is that sales of “Armenian ceramics” far exceed their supply.

In the Arab Market near the Armenian Quarter, stores filled with so-called Armenian ceramics line the narrow cobbled streets. Ask the shopkeepers if these inexpensive ceramics are genuine, and they’ll insist they are.

Hagop Karakashian begs to differ.

Karakashian is a third generation Armenian ceramist in Jerusalem, and he probably understands the art and business of ceramics better than almost anyone in town. His family helped make Armenian ceramics almost synonymous with Jerusalem art craft during the past century.

“The market is filled with cheap knock offs,” he says. “The stuff they sell is not hand painted. Not hand produced,” says Karakashian. And, most significantly for Karakashian, they’re not Armenian.

The closest that these wares come to anything Armenian, he suggests, is when they are stacked on a shelf near a sign that (falsely) proclaims them to be Armenian.

I visited Karakashian’s workshop in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem one morning and listened to him explain what makes Armenian ceramics so Armenian.  He spoke of hand painting, and original designs, and wood-fired kilns. He spoke of clay presses and etchings. He didn’t mention tradition. He didn’t have to. His workshop exudes tradition.

Visit Karakashian’s vintage ceramic workshop in the heart of the Old City, where every design is still hand-painted, and you’ll wonder if the year isn’t 1810, instead of 2010.

Listen to him explain how clay was fired before electric kilns were developed and you’ll have to ask yourself: is he marveling at how difficult the process was a century ago? Or is he instead lamenting that technology has made things slightly less difficult today?

Karakashian says the artistry of their Armenian ceramics is as authentic today as it was nearly a century ago, but he laments some of the changes in the workplace.

The pottery is fired today in an electric kiln, he says. “Before, we used a wood fired kiln. We used to judge the temperature of the kiln from the color of the fire.” Now, he says, they just use a thermometer.

The colors used for painting today are slightly different from those of a century ago. Sometimes they’re a bit less saturated, he says. Karakashian’s grandfather created his own glazing for the clay by mixing the broken glass of bottles with powder and water. “Now we just use a manufactured glaze,” he says.

And the clay, itself, is different. “The clay today is usually imported from Italy. It used to be local, from Hebron [a town on the West Bank],” he says.

While Karakashian explained the century’s many advances in ceramic craftsmanship, I imagined that he was instead describing the advantage of typing a page with an old-fashioned 1930s-era Royal typewriter, rather than with an older-fashioned Royal typewriter of a decade earlier. Either way, I figured, the process was going to be slow.

Maybe this was Karakashian’s point. You can make a lot of clay pots. Or you can be an artist of Armenian ceramics. Karakashian had chosen to be the artist.

The Origin of Armenian Ceramics in Jerusalem

Hagop Karakashian’s family members are Jerusalem’s original Armenian ceramics craftsmen. His grandfather Mgrdtch got things started almost a century ago.

Mgrdtch arrived in Jerusalem in 1919 as a 24-year-old refugee from Turkey. Within three years of his arrival he had founded a ceramics business. Their shop has been in continuous operation in Jerusalem since 1922.

“My grandfather sold ceramics to British soldiers,” says Karakashian. “We were the first Armenian pottery workshop here.”

The Karakashians are also the last of their kind. When they arrived in Jerusalem in 1919, it was upon the invitation of the British Mandate in order to make repairs to a Muslim shrine—the third holiest shrine in all of Islam.

“They hired an Armenian to renovate the tiles of the Dome of the Rock, which were in ruin at the time,” explains Karakashian. “They had heard that Armenians were very good ceramic craftsmen.”

This Armenian, a man named David Ohanessian, commissioned a group of artists from the town of Kutahya, located southeast of Istanbul. Karakashian’s grandfather was one of about ten artists who were brought to Jerusalem.

They started to work, and had already made sample replacement tiles for the Dome of the Rock, when the job was abruptly cancelled. There was no problem with the quality of their tile work. Actually, the quality was excellent. But the local Muslim community viewed with disfavor that all of the work was being done by Christian Armenians.

This is why the job was shut down. “The job was cancelled because they weren’t Muslim,” says Karakashian. The year was 1919 or 1920, he adds, and at this point, after the Genocide, they certainly couldn’t go back to their homes in Turkey. So they stayed and worked in Jerusalem.

Things could certainly have been much worse for the Karakashians, and for an Armenian art form.

“The others from his town [in Turkey] were wiped out” by the Turks, says Karakashian. “So now only [we] are the legacy of [the Armenian ceramic craftsmen of] Turkey.”

Repairs were finally made to the tiles of the Dome of the Rock—some forty years later, in 1960, using tiles imported from Turkey.

Hagop’s father Stepan Karakashian is the son of the original Karakashian. Stepan still makes pottery in the workshop on most days– often etching stencils on the clayware that will later be painted—but he leaves much of the work to his son.

When their shop opened in 1922 they called themselves Palestine Pottery. In 1964 they changed their name to Palestinian Pottery as part of a deal to buy out an original partner in the business, a man named Nishan Balian.

Today they operate a storefront and workshop at a prime location on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City where the Christian Quarter and the Muslim Quarter meet. The Via Dolorosa, also known as the Path of Sorrow or the Way of the Cross, is the route that Jesus is believed to have followed when he made his final walk through the city, to the place of his crucifixtion. Their business is today known as Jerusalem Pottery.

There are a handful of other Armenian ceramists in Jerusalem, as well. Garo Sandrouni is one of them. He operates a workshop in a prominent spot near the corner of Ararat Street and Armenian Patriarchate Boulevard, in the heart of the Old City’s Armenian Quarter.

He competes for business with a similar shop that sells similar wares and that is located just around the corner. The shops have the same name, too. Garo’s competitor, alas, is one of his relatives.

Fifty meters north, on Armenian Patriarchate Road, an immigrant from Armenia operates Vic’s Armenian Pottery. Vic studied art in Yerevan, and his designs are original.

As for the cheap imitations sold in the Arab Market, Karakashian says he’s not flattered by the imitation. “I don’t like copying,” he says.

Neither do many others, apparently. “That’s why we’re still in business. People do appreciate” genuine Armenian ceramics.

About the Author

Matthew Karanian traveled to Jerusalem earlier this year as part of a research and photography project documenting the Armenian community and the Old City’s Armenian Quarter. His Jerusalem photography will be included in a large format photography book to be released in 2012 with co-author Robert Kurkjian.

Karanian practices law in Pasadena, Calif., and is a former Associate Dean and member of the law faculty at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan. He is also the co-author with Kurkjian of several books about Armenia, including the best-selling photo-based travel guide Armenia and Karabagh: The Stone Garden Guide. This book is available from Borders, from Armenian booksellers in Glendale, and from the online bookseller Amazon.com.

Karanian’s photography has appeared in such magazines as CNN Traveler, Photo Life, and Photo District News (PDN). He has photographed leaders such as former Presidents Bill Clinton and Robert Kocharian, in the Oval Office of the White House, and several Miss Armenia beauty queen.

12 Responses

for “Armenians in Jerusalem: Working and Creating in the Holy Land”

  1. mko Kaynakjian says:

    Yes, the Armenian community is under peril. But what does the nation plan to do about it,,,in a word, NOTHING. We are worthy of the destiny that will doom us – not only in Jerusalem, but Istanbul as well, where the diaspora does precious little in the way of assistance. And you demand “Our Lands” – so hollow and self-serving rhetoric!!!

    • Arn. says:

      DONT DESPAIR OF ISTANBUL – IT WILL SOON BE CALLED – “TSARIGRAD” AGAIN !!!.

      We are worthy of the destiny that will doom us

      ARMENIAS DESTINY IS NOT A DOOM IN THE NEGATIVE SENSE – JUST YOU WAIT AND SEE -
      JUST STAY CLOSE TO THE LORD JESUS CHRIST AND ARMENIA WILL PREVAIL THROUGH EVEYTHING.

      Arn.Sweden.

  2. It is a pity that Mr Karanian has either done extremely poor research regarding the Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem or intentionally omitted the Balian Family of Jerusalem. The same applies to Hagop Karakashian.
    The Balian family located on 14 Nablus is the pillar of the Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem. My mother Marie Balian is a world renowned tile artist with exhibition done at The Smithsonian of Washington DC , Alecante-Spain, and several at the Eretz Israle Museum in Israel.
    The Balian Family Armenian Ceramics is mentioned in world renowned magazines and books spreading this unique form of Armenian ceramic art to the rest of the world. With studios in Jerusalem , Amman and Beirut we are at the forefront of hand painted tiles and ceramics and one of the biggest in the Middle East yet you deem fit to ignore even the name Balian in your article.
    We presently work in huge projects as the ceramic signage of all of the Old City streets which we won the exclusive rights by beating more than 6 other so called Armenian Ceramics studios and even Israeli companies. We also have Balian Armenian Ceramics all around the Historical site of Petra, Jordan which we do with the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism. Armenian Ceramics is also heavily present in the Gulf area where we are currently installing three huge ceramic tile murals at the main lobby of the brand new Qatar University Research center. Last but not least a lot of Jordanian Royal Palaces are slowly being decorated with Balian Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem.
    Your article is incomplete, weak in research an very biased.

    Thank you in advance

    Neshan Balian
    General Manager
    The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem
    http://www.armenianceramics.com
    Exclusive tiles and pottery since 1922

  3. Appo says:

    Are you related to the Nishan Balian who they mention in the article?

    The article says “In 1964 they changed their name to Palestinian Pottery as part of a deal to buy out an original partner in the business, a man named Nishan Balian.”

  4. VAROUJAN TCHOLAKIAN says:

    ԱՅՍ ԳՐՈՒԹԵԱՆ ՇԻՏԱԿ ՁԵՒՈՎ ՇԷՆ ՊԱՏՄՎԱԾՔ ՄԵԿ ԱՉՔՈՎ ԳՐՎԱԾ ԵՒ ԼՍՈՒԱԾ Է.ՊԱՐՈՆ ՊԱՏԵԱՆԻ ԸՍԱԾ ՆԵՐԸ ՈՒՐԱՆԱԼԻ ԽՈՍՔԵՐ ՋԵՆՆ .ԵՐՈՒՍԱՂԵՄԻ ՈՒ ՆԵՐ ՇԱՏ ԱՐԺԵՔԱՎՈՐ ԱՐՎԵՍՏ ՏԱՔ ԵՏ ՆԵՐ .ՄԻՄԻԱՅՆ ՆԵՐ ՔՆԻ ԿԱՑՈՒԹԵԱՆ ՊԱՇԱՐՈՎ ՀԱՐՑՆ ՍԻՐՈՎ ՎԱՐՈՒԺԱՆ ՉՕԼԱՔԵԱՆ..

  5. VAROUJAN TCHOLAKIAN says:

    VAROUJAN TCHOLAKIAN says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    November 14, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    ԱՅՍ ԳՐՈՒԹԵԱՆ ՇԻՏԱԿ ՁԵՒՈՎ ՇԷՆ ՊԱՏՄՎԱԾՔ ՄԵԿ ԱՉՔՈՎ ԳՐՎԱԾ ԵՒ ԼՍՈՒԱԾ Է. ԳԱՐԱ ՔԱՇՎԱՆ ԵՒ ՊԱԼԵԱՆ ԸՆԿԵՐՈՒԹՅՈՒՆ ԿԱԶՄԱԾ ԵՆ ՊԱՐՈՆ ՆՇԱՆ ՊԱԼԵԱՆ ԸՍԱԾ ՆԵՐԸ ՈՒՐԱՆԱԼԻ ԽՈՍՔԵՐ ՋԵՆՆ .ԵՐՈՒՍԱՂԵՄԻ ՈՒ ՆԵՐ ՇԱՏ ԱՐԺԵՔԱՎՈՐ ԱՐՎԵՍՏ ՏԱՔ ԵՏ ՆԵՐ ՈՒ ԱՆԵԻՆ .ՄԻ ՄԻԱՅՆ ՆԵՐ ՔՆԻ ԿԱՑՈՒԹԵԱՆ ՊԱՏՃԱՈՈՎ ՀՐԱՑԱՆ ՍԻՐՈՎ ՎԱՐՈՒԺԱՆ ՉՕԼԱՔԵԱՆ..
    Reply

  6. A brief highlight

    Mgrdich Karakashian and Nishan Balian were very sincere ceramist friends and partners when they started their work in Jerusalem. Mgrdich (my uncle from my mother’s side) was responsible for the clayware drawings, paintings, supervising the painters, a group of girls, one of those was my mother Zmroukht Karakashian and later Tashjian, Mgrdich’s sister.

    Zmroukht’s photo, while painting, is shown in the National Geographic Magazine of USA of 1927.
    At present my cousins Stepan and Berj and Stepan’s son Hagop are in the business.

    Nishan Balian was responsible for the hard clay work (locally purchased raw
    material) and an expert on the foot operated wheel turner to create and make ready the clayware for paintings etc. After Nshan Balian’s demise, Setrak Balian took over the wheel and later with his wife Mary, they opened their new business. At present the business is in the hands of Mary Balian and her son’s Nshan and Ohan.

    As I spent years with them, I miss them a lot, both families dedicated to their children and the work they introduced to Jerusalem as renowned Armenian Ceramists.

    Good luck for you both,

    Sebouh Z Tashjian
    Sydney – Australia

  7. Harout E. Kahvedjian says:

    Dear sir,
    As the eldest son of photographer Elia Kahvedjian of Jerusalem, I would like to make a number of corrections regarding the “Refugee Photographer” article.

    1. My father, Elia Kahvedijian, was five-years-old in 1915 and not seven, as the article reports.
    2. He was born in the 3,000-year-old city of Urfa–not a nameless village, according to the article.
    3. He was not “sent on a march to the Syrian Deserts.” He, like other Armenians deportees, was kicked, beaten and whipped, as they staggered to the Syrian Desert (singular). Marching is done by soldiers, not starving deported women and children.
    4. He was not the only member of his family to survive the trek when they reached the killing field in Deir Zor. His mother, along with his oldest sister (Takouhi) and older brother (Mgrdich) also survived.
    5. Contrary to the article, my father did not see his mother being led away to a hilltop to be murdered. It was eighteen years after the Genocide when he learned that his mother, sister and brother were murdered by the Turks.
    6. He did not “find his way to Nazareth,” as the article says. After being kicked out of the house by his “adoptive” parents in Mardin at the age of six, he escaped from starving Turkish cannibals, twice, the second time, barely escaping with his life, with a dagger embedded in his thigh.
    He learned that to be an Armenian orphan in Mardin was to be hated, bullied and beaten by the local Turkish bullies.
    He was picked up by ANERA (American Near East Refugee Association) workers and put in an Armenian orphanage in Urfa.

    Continuous Turkish terrorism had forced the second mass evacuation of the Armenian population from Urfa, and the transfer of the orphans to Trchnots Puyn ” Birds’ nest” Orphanage in Jubail (Byblos,) Lebanon; months later he was transferred to Nazareth, Palestine and then to Jerusalem in 1924.

    Finally, 18 years after the Genocide, his persistence paid off, he had found one of his three sisters, the only survivor of his extended family.

    7. The article says that my father opened his photography studio in Jerusalem in 1924. In that year my father was a penniless, 14-year-old orphan. He opened his photography studio—Elia Photo Service— in 1942..
    8. Contrary to the article, he didn’t move his shop’s location within Jerusalem a couple of times. In early 1948 he was forced to close his shop for two years due to the war between Arabs and Jews. The present shop (established in 1950) is still at the same address in the Old City of Jerusalem.
    9. My father wasn’t the first Armenian photographer in Jerusalem. That honor belongs to the pioneer Armenian photographer, Yessayi Garabedian, who later became patriarch of Jerusalem. In 1856 Garabedian opened the first photography studio in Jerusalem.

    The above facts can be verified in my father’s autobiography–”Memories of Urfa’s Heroic Struggle and Subsequent Events,” published in Armenian in Yerevan in 1995 and in an “Azbarez” article “The Last Survivor of the Armenian Holocaust” (April 22, 1995.)
    Sincerely.
    Harout E. Kahvedjian

  8. Jeffrey Jones says:

    The Balian shop has strayed from the traditional works of the old Karakashian-Balian joint workshop. Compare the Balian pieces to the Karakashian pieces of today. Only the Karakashian pieces have kept the old patterns and traditions.

  9. Vanessa Kachadurian says:

    We proudly have a Karakashian piece in our home with an Armenian cross and Armenian blessing. Very beautiful with lot of the blue hues used.

  10. Interesting replies and corrections here, I was glad to get some of these references. The article omits the fact that David Ohannessian (this is the proper spelling of his name) was a master potter himself and is considered the father of this tradition in Jerusalem, not simply a contractor, as seemed to have been implied.

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