Pottering about

The Arab Quarter of the Old City wakes up late. At 10 am most of the shops are still shuttered and the streets uncluttered by tourists, pilgrims or th

The Arab Quarter of the Old City wakes up late. At 10 am most of the shops are still shuttered and the streets uncluttered by tourists, pilgrims or the garish glitter that will soon spill into their supplicant hands. Down steep, narrow paths you can catch lonely glimpses of black-robed priests gliding over timeless steps hewn from historic stones. And there on the Via Dolorosa at number 15, tucked away in a tiny courtyard, is "The Jerusalem Pottery." My interest in ceramics began over thirty years ago with a visit to the 16th-century Rustem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul. It is an Iznik gem unsurpassed in the beauty of its decorative tiling by any other building in Istanbul. I had been told that the Armenian potters of Jerusalem incorporated Iznik designs into their work. But my first encounters with Armenian-style pottery in the souvenir shops of Ben Yehuda were disappointing. It is all clearly mass-produced with tedious motifs. Occasionally I have unexpectedly glimpsed the exquisite work of these artists. Visit the toilets on the first floor of the Inbal Hotel, for example, for a surprising ceramic delight! For another visual feast get a copy of the stunning, lavishly-illustrated book The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem: Three Generations by Nurith Kenaan-Kedar (Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi and Eretz Israel Museum, 2003.) The author, Professor of Medieval Art History at Tel Aviv University, has written a scholarly text that provides detailed descriptions tracing the development of motifs used by these Armenian artists. I must confess that it was the pictures and not the text which sold the book to me. The book focuses on the work of three Armenian families who established their art-form in Jerusalem. They arrived from Kutahya in Turkey at the invitation of the British in order to carry out repairs to the tiles on the Dome of the Rock a project that was later abandoned. (The tiles were ultimately given as a gift to Jordan's King Hussein by the Turkish Government in 1965.) In order to see authentic Armenian work I decide to visit the workshop of the Karakashian family in the Via Dolorosa. I am greeted by Stepan, now the head of the family, and I am addressed not only in faultless English but also with a clean, clear accent now rarely heard even on the streets of England. The manner is charming, reminiscent of England decades ago. A former pupil of St George's School in East Jerusalem I should have guessed. In the short time I have been in Jerusalem I have met several former pupils, Arab and Christian, who received a classic English education in St George's especially at the time of the British Mandate when the school was staffed by English gentlemen. His son Hagop joins us. His education took him to university in Los Angeles where he studied marketing. His two sisters still live in the United States but in 1995 he returned to join the family pottery business. His experience living in America has made him less than totally content with life here; he's not sure he wants his three-year-old daughter growing up with all the tensions. "In America everyone has rights" he says reflectively. "Some days I show my ID card and I can't enter by the Damascus Gate and have to walk all the way round to the Jaffa Gate to be allowed to reach my work." He says he is frustrated, caught up in troubles that are nothing to do with him. The intifada has imposed tremendous financial difficulties and the Armenian community in Jerusalem now numbers a shrinking 1,200. But Hagop, who says that vases are his speciality, loves his work creating the patterns which are hand painted onto the vases and then seeing the pleasure it gives customers when they buy one of his vases. He is a gentle, patient man and you can easily understand the dilemma he alludes to. Here he is a minority, getting on with everyone, but nevertheless living on the margins of other larger, more vociferous communities. But the Armenians are a close and caring community; does he really want to leave that all behind for the benefits of an emotionally and financially more secure life in America? His father clearly hopes that his son will maintain the family's pottery tradition. Here in the Via Dolorosa the two generations face the dilemmas of personal and communal survival. I am shown the tiny workshop where the pots are carefully hand-painted. The designs are first drawn on paper by the artist and then pierced along the lines to form a pattern of pinholes. The paper is laid on the pot and dusted over with charcoal so that black pinpricks lay out the design on the pot. "This is said to be the same method of transferring a design as used by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel," explains Stepan. Nowadays most of the colors are imported from Italy but three of them their brilliant cobalt blue, green, and blue-green 'aqua' are mixed according to the same recipe as used by grandfather Karakashian sixty years ago. Most of the themes in the decorative elements are drawn from Turkish, Persian and even Chinese designs. They are blended with Jewish and Christian themes. The birds are a traditional element from Armenian manuscripts; the peacock is a symbol for long life. The small showroom beckons. I buy three small dishes with an Iznik inspired design. They'll make lovely presents. As I leave, Stepan proudly points out the tiles which name the streets throughout the Old City straight from the Karakashian workshop. He also notes sadly how these tiles are purposely chipped by the children who throw stones at them. Once home I decide to keep the dishes, of course. Now I shall have to wend my way back to "The Jerusalem Pottery," the only place, apart from their twenty-first century address: www.jerusalem pottery.biz, where you can buy Karakashian originals.