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Ceramic blues - A traditional family run Armenian art form

From The Jerusalem Post, February 2004

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Across the country, untold numbers of souvenir shops run by Jews and Arabs market their ceramics as Armenian. The vast majority of ceramics are actually imitations from Hebron, according to Armenians and art historians who specialize in Armenian art.

"In Hebron since 1969, they took a lot of designs from Karakashian and Balian," says Nurith Kenaan Kedar, a professor of medieval art history from Tel Aviv University, referring to the two founding families of the Armenian ceramics industry in Jerusalem.

Prior to their (Karakashian and Balian) arrival in Jerusalem, there was no tradition of ceramic work on dishes or tiles there; today the influence of these families can be seen on building facades, murals and wall hangings, and in churches, graveyards, museums, hotels, hospitals, and private homes throughout the country.

A champion of these Armenian families and concerned about the fading awareness of their art. Kenaan Kedar published The Armenian ceramics of Jerusalem (originally in Hebrew by Yad Ben-Tzvi and Eretz Israel Museum, and recently reissued in English) to explain the motifs, inspirations, and history of these creations.

Books on Armenian ceramics

The book "Armenian Ceramic of Jerusalem," by Nurith Kenaan Kedar

"It was precisely these members of a Christian minority who introduced an art form that had not previously existed in the city, and turned their products into a hallmark of local, Jerusalem art," she writes, charging that serious study of their work has been neglected.

Kenaan-Kedar recently turned to the Postal Authority to persuade it of her premise. It was convinced: In September 2003 the Israel Philatelic Service issued three stamps commemorating the Karakashian and Balian families and Armenian ceramics of Jerusalem. Reminiscent of plates, they are the first round stamps in Israel's history.

Stamp on Armenian ceramics

The commemorative stamp issued by the Israeli Philatelic Service
and Israel Postal Authority in honor of the Karakashian Balian families

Past dozens of souvenir vendors in Jerusalem's Old City, down the cobbled Via Dolorosa, across from the Sixth Station of the Cross, in a tiny cave-like shop, Stepan Karakashian, the second generation Armenian potter, taps a key on a ceramic bowl.

"It rings nice," he says, trying to explain how to spot quality ceramics from their imitations. On the bottom, it says "Jerusalem" in English and has his signature in Armenian. The copies likely won't have Armenian inscriptions, and any writing will usually be done in felt pen that washes off, he says. "In better days, tourists would buy the cheap stuff as gifts but the good stuff for themselves."

"All of it in the Old City is not Armenian," he says. "In 1967 Israelis started to buy our pottery. The Hebron people were quick to copy our work because they found a popular item. Now they do it by machine and it's mass produced. It doesn't have a real artistic sense but it's known as Armenian."

Excerpt from the Jerusalem Post article on the Armenian ceramics of Karakashian and Balian, February 2004, written by Lauren Gelfond

Other articles on Armenian ceramics: