Located about 300km south-east of Constantinople, on the western side of the Anatolian plateau, a ceramic school flourished from the early sixteenth century to the early twentieth century in the hometown of Komitas Vardapet – Kutahya.

Text : Nairi Khachadourian    Photo : Komitas Museum-Institute

An Armenian community existed in Kutahya from the thirteenth century and Armenian churches were constructed starting from 1391. Two colophons from fifteenth-century Armenian manuscripts refer to Armenian ceramic craftsmen. The earliest surviving Armenian ceramics from Kutahya are a small monochrome liturgical ewer with an Armenian inscription, made in 1510 in commemoration of Abraham of Kutahya, and a monochrome liturgical jug made in 1529. Both examples, currently on display at the British Museum in London, testify to the existence of ceramic workshops led by Armenians since the sixteenth century.

Through centuries Armenian potters crafted a variety of ceramic ware for various uses, some of which are signed pieces with ligatured monograms or signatures in Armenian, revealing the names of Armenian potters, such as the objects crafted by Abraham Vardapet. Other objects and tiles, bearing inscriptions display the names of donors, churches, family members, and the dates.

Throughout the centuries, Armenian potters pioneered a tradition of provincial and naïve decorative style in the form of pictorial scenes and fancy, colorful figures from daily life and religious themes in the various vessels produced for domestic ware and objects crafted for places of worship. Potters used a siliceous clay with monochrome and polychrome underpainting and a transparent glaze. Egg-shaped or spherical hangings of different sizes were among the most popular ceramic forms to originate from Kutahya. These pottery pendants decorated mostly with polychrome six-winged seraphim and crosses were pierced at either end and hung on chains from oil lamps suspended in churches and mosques, as barriers against mice, or without oil lamps for decorative purposes. Some hangings bear inscriptions with the donor’s name and its destination, which state that they were brought by Armenian pilgrims to Jerusalem as votive offerings for the church.

By the eighteenth century, Armenians controlled the Kutahya ceramic industry. Two court agreements drawn up in Kutahya between the potters of the city and the Ottoman judges Sherif Abdullah and Ahmed Effendi, reveal the names and fathers’ names of potters (journeymen and masters) of Kutahya, all of them being Armenians. Three successful workshops were in operation at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, two of them led by Armenian craftsmen: the brothers Garabed and Harutiun Minassian, who directed their workshop together, and David Ohannessian who had established his own workshop in 1907, the Société Ottoman de Faïence. These workshops exported pottery both to the Ottoman world and to Europe, created monumental installations, restored important historical buildings, and participated in various trade shows from 1907 to 1914 in Bursa and outside the Ottoman Empire.

David Ohannessian worked in Kutahya until he was exiled during the Armenian Genocide and deported with his family to Syria in 1916. The Minassian brothers were deported to Anatolia and then relocated to Athens. In 1919, David Ohannessian arrived in Jerusalem and was recommended by Colonel Sir Mark Sykes – a British diplomat who had commissioned a work from Ohannessian while serving in Kutahya – to the Pro-Jerusalem Society to create new tiles for the Dome of the Rock. Ohannessian asked to go back to Kutahya to gather materials, tools, and to bring the remaining colleagues back with him. Ohannessian returned to Jerusalem with Nishan Balian and Mgerditch Karakashian. They and their families settled in Jerusalem and the latter two continue to work as ceramic craftsmen to this day.