Balian Tiles in East Jerusalem
Starting with a handful of Armenian families who came to Palestine in the early 20th century, hand-painted ceramic tiles are now a rooted craft tradition.
There’s a narrow hallway that runs through the middle of the Balian ceramics workshop in East Jerusalem. To the left, bright sunlight fills the showroom with Palestinian pottery, glinting off the myriad tea sets, plates, coasters, bowls and tiles stacked for sale. To the right, a large glass window radiates with a fluorescent brightness that illuminates the core of the workshop. Inside, Khatoun Kutujian, Amani Zaanin and Tajani Zaanin deftly wield their paintbrushes under a sign that reads: Hand-painting our pottery since 1922.
‘Before we came to the region, this kind of pottery did not exist at all in Palestine,’ Neshan Balian Jr. says, gesturing to the intricate designs in the showroom, rendered in deep blues, reds and greens on crisp white backgrounds. The ‘we’ he refers to is his family, or more broadly, a small group of Armenians who travelled to Palestine in the early 20th century, tasked with a very specific job.
Neshan Balian, Jr. stands among some of the family's earliest ceramics in their workshop museum
‘In 1919, my grandfather was brought over to Jerusalem by the British Mandate Authorities, from a city called Kütahya in Turkey, which was a centre for this type of ceramics,’ says Neshan.
Neshan Balian Sr., along with members of the Karakashian and Ohannessian families, came specifically to renovate the neglected ceramic tiles decorating the Dome of the Rock. By 1922, their work in the Old City finished, and the Balians and Karakashians began their own ceramics workshop under the name Palestinian Pottery.
Top: Painting on the biscuitware requires a steady hand and intense knowledge of the hundreds of designs found on Balian ceramics
Bottom: An incredible selection of ceramics are sold on the premises, ranging from simple cups and mugs to large tea sets and decorative murals
The Balian family still operates out of the same premises, a low-slung stone building on Nablus Road, just a short walk away from the Old City’s Damascus Gate. Their workshop is known by several names today: the Original Palestinian Pottery, the Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem, or simply as the Balian workshop. But for the family, their craft is most importantly defined by how their ceramics are produced: by hand.
‘We do everything here,’ Neshan says, leading the way across the hall to the workshop, passing by shelves of dry ‘green stage’ pottery, ready to be sanded and fired. A potter’s wheel, where ceramicists ‘throw’ pots – the technical term for hand-shaping pottery on the spinning disc – sits among other moulds and presses.
‘We are the only company in Jerusalem actually doing our own thicker handmade tiles, and also the only company in Jerusalem doing our own pottery, and throwing on the wheel.’
A view into the tile painting studio
At the back of the workshop, shelves and tables overflow with ceramics in various stages of completion. White clay, imported from Italy, is moulded before pressed or thrown into any number of shapes, from simple plates to large pitchers and vases. Tiles of all sizes are stacked next to each other, ready to be painted or glazed. In the room where Khatoun, Amani and Tajani sit, a quiet radio murmurs from the corner as they flick their paintbrushes across the matte, once-fired clay.
Left: Shelves of potter in their 'green stage' wait to be sanded down on rows of shelves near the entrance to the studio
Right: To achieve a shiny and smooth protective coating, the glaze must be distributed evenly over each piece
The three women create intricate floral patterns and symmetric Islamic designs, using special metal oxides gauged for Balian’s particular clays and glazes. Khatoun, seated across from Amani at a divided desk, is freehand outlining small fish onto tiles that are most likely headed for a swimming pool. On more technically challenging pieces, like bathroom tiles, details and repetitive patterns are screen-printed before painting.
‘The designs, patterns and influences that you see are a combination of Armenian, Turkish and Islamic,’ says Neshan, explaining that the family brings these diverse influences together in ways that are unique to Jerusalem tiles.
The florals, in particular the tulips and carnations, are borne out of the Turkish tradition; the Armenian influence can be seen in the animals decorating some of the tiles, like gazelles found fawning around the base of many of their designs. When combined with incredibly detailed Islamic patterns, the finished products become a cacophony of colour and movement.
Top: Amani Zaanin outlines a gazelle surrounded by flowers at the base of a bowl – recurring motifs found in the Balian family's traditional ceramics
Bottom: Tile production can be especially complex and attention to detail is key, as the recurring patterns must join together to make up a cohesive design
Top: To achieve a shiny and smooth protective coating, the glaze must be distributed evenly over each piece
Bottom: A glaze is sprayed across a selection of tiles
After each piece is painted, it heads to the glazing room, to be dipped or sprayed with an opaque white glaze. The glaze becomes transparent in any one of the three kilns, which fire the pieces at around 1,000 degrees centigrade, and functions as a protective layer. The only way to be sure that a tile is a hand-painted Balian original, and not one of the mass-produced copies peddled to tourists in the Old City, is to check its bottom: each piece is inscribed with ‘Jerusalem’ and a ‘B’, written in Armenian and English.
In the narrow corridor separating the showroom from the workshop, a hand-painted bell bears the word ‘Museum.’ Behind the green door is a small space, once functioning as the old kiln room, filled with pieces charting the history of both the business and Jerusalem itself – a sort of ceramics timeline. Mugs made specifically for the Palestinian Police sit next to plates decorated for the Transjordan Frontier Force.
‘This is a place with a lot of heritage and history, and it’s also a history of survival,’ Neshan says. When talking about survival, he refers to both Jerusalem’s socio-political landscape and the family’s commitment to hand-painting in a market filled with cheap, printed copies. ‘We’ve continued this tradition all the way from 1922 until today, and Balian pottery is different from what you see in the Old City. We’re the hand-painted original. It’s not easy but we are surviving.’
One of the most precious pieces in the family's museum is this box and small vase from 1916 – Neshan's grandfather, for whom he was named, painted it to celebrate his engagement
Early on, the pieces were rendered with a tan background, due to the limited supply of clay coming directly from the Palestinian earth. In the museum, an original tile from the Dome of the Rock sits next to the restored version by the grandfather, Neshan Balian Sr. Some tiles have cracked glazes, and the designs are not as precise as those produced down the hall. But for Neshan, they are no less valuable – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
‘Just knowing the fact that this is 70 or 80 years old, painted by my grandfather or grandmother, gives it a quality,’ he says, handling a vase. ‘Technically, the glaze has overfired, the colours are not showing a lot. But it has its own beauty.’
Writer: Mary Pelletier
Photographer: Mostafa Alkharouf
A detailed tile mural painted by Neshan's mother, Marie Balian, hangs in the studio's hallway. In 1992, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC exhibited her work in 'Views of Paradise', a testament to her artistic skill
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