Jerusalem’s other face

Tracing the steps of the Holy City’s tile master.

Jerusalem’s other face (photo credit: PXHERE)
Jerusalem’s other face
(photo credit: PXHERE)
Sato Moughalian is the granddaughter of Tavit (David) Ohannessian, the master Armenian ceramicist whose brilliant glazed tile work changed the face of Jerusalem in the early days of the British Mandate and continues to be one of the city’s most iconic art forms.
Moughalian did not know her maternal grandfather. Nor did she know much about the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkish Muslims in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. This cataclysmic series of persecutions forced the Ohannessians into exile from their Anatolian mountain village, first to Syria and then to Palestine in 1918, where Ohannessian established Dome of the Rock Tiles – so named because of that first, lifesaving commission to retile the vast Muslim structure built in 691 CE.
Growing up in Highland Park, New Jersey, Moughalian learned about the Holocaust in school and read books, including Elie Wiesel’s Night, found on the bookshelves of her many Jewish friends. She learned much more about the Jewish tragedy during World War II than about the Armenian tragedy in World War I, a traumatic topic that was difficult for her mother to talk about.
Feast of Ashes is the result of Moughalian’s quest to learn about her grandfather and his art – pieces of which she began to seek out and collect – and about the cruel persecution that shaped her family’s fortunes.
She is not a professional writer; she is an accomplished flutist and artistic director of the Perspectives Ensemble. One manifestation of her inexperience that escaped the editor’s attention is her inconsistency in referring to her grandfather. She alternately calls him “Tavit” and “Ohannessian,” often in the same paragraph.
Nevertheless, both the historical and biographical aspects of the book are meticulously researched, the facts carefully footnoted. She covers an impressive amount of ground in the story of her grandfather’s life and times.
MOUGHALIAN DISCOVERED that in 1898, at age 14, her grandfather had left school to work as assistant to an egg merchant and exporter.
“Whenever his funds allowed, Tavit purchased photos of the tiled walls of the Rustem Pasha and the Sultan Valide Mosques and added them to a small collection he had mounted into a plain cardboard album. The intricate patterns and juxtapositions of the tile designs appealed to his mathematical mind.”
Before long, young Tavit “went in search of the workshops and introduced himself to the masters.” His success in this exacting craft was such that by 1908 he was economically secure enough to wed his beloved cousin, Victoria, after six years of betrothal.
But it wasn’t happily ever after, as the impending reign of murder, rape and forced conversions led the Ohannessians to flee to Aleppo and then to Jerusalem. Of all the misfortunes the family suffered, the one that most devastated her grandfather seemed to have been signing an agreement to convert to Islam when Victoria’s life was threatened. Of course, the Ohannessians were free to practice Christianity once they arrived in Palestine.
The family flourished in Jerusalem personally and professionally. Dome of the Rock Tiles on Via Dolorosa employed many other Armenian refugees to help in tile-making for commissioned projects and for tourist and pilgrim merchandise. The book states that 20,000 Armenian exiles reached Palestine during World War I.
The shop received commissions far and wide. As a result of displaying his wares at the Chicago World Fair in 1933, “Tavit sold great quantities of pottery and reaped orders for tiled fountains for clients in Chicago as well as one for the Hollywood mansion of producer Louis B. Mayer.”
Yet those were not easy years in the Holy Land. There was constant unrest during the British Mandate, and every violent outbreak re-traumatized the Ohannessians.
The author’s accounts of these events generally focus more on Jewish acts of terrorism, such as the Irgun’s 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in which two Armenians were among 91 people killed. She describes the horrific riots of 1929 laconically as “the latest manifestation of tensions over increasing Zionist immigration,” failing to mention Arab mobs murdering and mutilating unarmed Jewish men, women and children.
To be fair, Feast of Ashes does not claim to be a history book. It tells the story of one family in the context of the historic events that befell them. And the sad fact is that the Ohannessians lost their family home in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood during the War of Independence and wound up once again in exile. David Ohannessian died in 1953 in Beirut. Moughalian’s Jerusalem-born mother, Fimi, carried that pain for the rest of her life.
Ultimately, however, both the family and the artistic legacy survived. Ohannessian’s magnificent work, depicted throughout the pages of the book, still can be admired in many places in Jerusalem and abroad, including a church in Moughalian’s resident borough of Brooklyn, New York. Descendants of two Armenian families Ohannessian brought to Jerusalem continue to produce traditional ceramics in the Old City today.