The golden Dome of the Rock is Occupied Jerusalem’s most iconic structure. It is also Islam’s third-holiest site, as it was from here that the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) ascended to Heaven on his night journey (Lailatul Meraj). Photographs of the shrine draw the eyes to the glittering golden dome and one rarely notices the ceramic tiles that adorn it. Steeped in history, these bear testimony to the struggle and survival of the Palestinian people but, more importantly, upholds their indomitable spirit.
One story related to the tiles is that of the Balian family. Neshan Balian, master ceramist in Kutahya, Turkey, was brought to Jerusalem in 1919 by the British Mandate government, which took over the city after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He was assigned the task of renovating the ceramic tiles of the Dome of the Rock, which, as the governor of Jerusalem Ronald Storrs saw, was in such a state of disrepair that they were falling off the walls of the shrine. After the completion of this task, Balian stayed back and established The Palestinian Pottery, building the first kiln with his own hands.
Sitting in its studios today, Balian’s grandson, Neshan Balian Junior, takes pride in retelling a history that has withstood the ravages of war and time and is thriving still. Neshan Junior speaks of the time when his grandfather had to get bottles from the British army for the glass, which was used in the glazing process. He smiles, saying: “My grandfather would sleep by the side of the kiln to make sure it didn’t under- or overfire. Today I control it from my home with my iPhone.”
After the end of the Second World War, life became much easier under Jordanian rule. Neshan Junior says theirs was the only ceramic studio in Jerusalem at the time and points to documentation that he is compiling into a coffee-table book, noting orders from the 1950s from Oman and the government of Qatar. His grandfather, he says, was not only a pioneer of the art in Jerusalem, but also held the market monopoly at the time.
However, during the second stage of the renovation of the Dome of the Rock, the Jordanian government imported the ceramic tiles from Turkey. Neshan Junior points out letters his grandfather had written to the Jordanian government, pleading with them to encourage local business instead.
Although he lost out on the contract then, Neshan Junior today works with the waqf who administers the Dome of the Rock to replace the ceramic tiles and help with renovation whenever needed.
After Neshan Senior died in 1964, his son Setrak Balian took over the business. “My father studied under the renowned potter Raymond Finch in Winchcombe, England, in the early 1950s,” Neshan Junior says. “While he was on his way back to Jerusalem, my father made a stop at Lyon, France, as my grandfather had told him we had relatives there. It was in the small city of Decines, close to Lyon, that he met my mother, Marie, whom he married in Bethlehem in 1955.”
“Everything changed when my father took over The Palestinian Pottery,” he continues. “My mother, too, began to contribute artistically. The bold curves of flowers and running animals began to replace the geometric and static designs that came from Turkish and Islamic influences. My mother’s Armenian artistic influence separated The Palestinian Pottery from its Kutahya origins, which was characterised by traditional Iznik and Islamic patterns.”
Marie’s talent, combined with Setrak Balian’s craft, soon caught the attention of the art community in Palestine, and dignitaries visiting the region called The Palestinian Pottery one of the “must visit” sites. “Dad’s knowledge of ceramics and mum’s artistic talent saw a renaissance of the art in Jerusalem, which garnered international attention,” Neshan Junior says.
However, he says, it lasted only until the Six Day War in 1967. “My father was warned by the French embassy to leave the area that Sunday. As he was crossing the Jordan River, he saw tanks crossing towards Jerusalem. We were placed on a ship to Beirut, but my father stayed back in Amman during the war,” he says.
After the war, the Jews considered everything left behind as enemy property and confiscated it, and Setrak had to leave. Together with friends, he decided to cross the Jordan River at a low point. But on the way across, their car got stuck and they somehow managed to push it to the other side. But there, too, they were stopped by a Jewish patrol. Neshan Junior smiles and says: “My dad’s polyester trousers had dried quickly, and that saved him. He was allowed to go to Jericho, while the others were sent back across the river.”
From Jericho, he says, Setrak had to cross four checkpoints to get to Occupied Jerusalem, and he was determined to get there to claim his property. “His car had Jordanian plates. But on the way he saw female Jewish soldiers hitching a ride and gave them a lift. He managed to slip his car into a convoy of army trucks and passed the four checkpoints,” Neshan Junior says.
When he returned to The Palestinian Pottery, which was smashed by tank shells and mortar, Setrak desperately searched through the rubble to find a thank-you letter from Ted Kennedy, whom Setrak had gifted a plate on his visit to Jerusalem. He then took this letter to the Ministry of the Interior in Occupied Jerusalem to prove his ownership of the property and was given “residency”. His family then returned from Beirut, via Haifa, and together they started rebuilding the pottery business.
From the early 1970s, Marie’s artistic influence began to spread, with her exhibiting at the prestigious Smithsonian Museum in 1992, which propelled their art on to the world stage of ceramic tiles and pottery.
However, it was about this time that their monopoly was broken by the entry of local artists who, with the help of technologies from the Jews, started copying their designs and flooding the tourist market in the Old City with Palestinian ceramics and pottery. The Balians opted to focus on connoisseurs instead, with original hand-painted products instead of the mass-market items available, but nonetheless took pride in being the pioneers of the art that tourists to the Old City today purchase.
Setrak passed away 20 years ago. Marie, now 86, continues to visit the studios, often chatting with clients. It is Neshan Junior who runs the show today. He recalls his grandfather’s wit: “When visitors would come to the potteries and, without making any purchases, just say ‘thank you’ after a tour of the factories, he would say, ‘Thank you does not feed my children.’”
He says Neshan Senior spent his last days quietly at the factory, and one day as he was sitting by the large “toot” tree in the garden, he passed away.
Neshan Junior has today expanded the business into the lucrative Gulf Markets, the European Union and the United States through their website and several projects. One such project is on at the Qatar University Research Centre, where they have used copies of old Islamic scientific manuscripts and incorporated them into ceramic murals in the lobby with the help of digital tile production.
Nevertheless, the connection with the Old City remains. The first stage of street signage in ceramic has just been completed. With the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism, all interpretive signage on certain ceramic tiles around Petra in Jordan has been completed, and the next stage is to do the same around Jerash.
After coffee and a walk around, I speak to Neshan Junior about the work they are doing at a recently renovated hotel in Occupied Jerusalem, and the passion with which the eight workers at the studio are engaged in the age-old craft.
Neshan Junior’s eyes glow with pride as he looks back at the legacy of The Palestinian Pottery. For though he may have incorporated modern techniques to adapt to the times, The Palestinian Pottery has remained a bastion of art that has outlived wars and intifadas, and continues to flourish even under occupation.
Rafique Gangat, author of Ye Shall Bowl on Grass, is based in Occupied Jerusalem.