Notes from a Journey: Middle Eastern politics, Covid-19 and Jerusalem Armenian ceramics meet in the

Political questions about the borders of Israel and the Jewish-Arab conflict which have been at the center of our lives for over a century, the Corona pandemic which has cast a shadow of fear over the entire world, glimpses of light and color from Jerusalem – all these came together in my recent visit to the Sledmere estate in Yorkshire, England.

I came to Sledmere to gather information on the Armenian ceramics of Jerusalem for an exhibition marking 100 years since the inception of this unique art form. This exhibition is being held by the Israel Museum and the Rockefeller Museum, and will be accompanied by a special series of tours along the Blue Tile Trail.

It all began with the Sykes family, in fact, with the very same Sir Mark Sykes whose name is immortalized in the Sykes-Picot agreement, which had such decisive influence on the borders in the Middle East. Mark Sykes, the sixth baronet in a line of Yorkshire aristocrats, a diplomat, Orientalist, expert on the Ottoman Empire, and a talented artist, decided in 1913 to rebuild the family estate, which had been burnt down. During the restoration, Sykes decided to build a "Turkish bath" in the original building, and the floor-to-ceiling tiles used were created by the Armenian artist, David Ohanessian, who at the time lived in Kutayha. The artist and his patron became acquainted, but had no way of knowing what political turbulence which would overtake them in the coming years.

The Turkish Room on the Sledmere Estate, Yorkshire

After WWI, David Ohanessian, a penniless refugee arrived in the Syrian city of Aleppo, together with other survivors of the Armenian genocide. Sykes, serving in a diplomatic post, came to Aleppo to document the survivors' testimonies. He was surprised to find the great Armenian artist whom he so admired in Aleppo, and put him in touch with the Governor of Jerusalem Ronald Storrs who was looking for an artist to restore the tiles of the Dome of the Rock. Thus, thanks to his acquaintance with Mark Sykes and his work on the estate in Yorkshire, David Ohanessian came to Jerusalem and founded the art form of Jerusalem Armenian ceramics.

In the winter of 1919, Mark Sykes represented Great Britain at the Paris Peace Conference. These were times of fear and plague – the Spanish flu was laying waste to the world, claiming more victims than the war which had preceded it.

Jeremy Sykes, Mark Sykes' grandson, told me this week that his grandfather and his family were showing cold symptoms, but it never crossed his mind not to take part in the conference. Mark Sykes travelled to Paris, but was overpowered by the flu and died on February 16th 1919 in his room in the Hôtel Le Lotti in Paris. The body of a less important person would probably have been cremated, but Sir Sykse's remains were placed in a lead-lined coffin and sent to Yorkshire, where he was buried following a dignified funeral.

In 2007 when another pandemic struck – this time Avian flu – British virologists requested permission to exhume Mark Sykse's body in the hope of gathering DNA samples which would help them understand related pandemics and how to deal with them. The exhumation was given substantial press coverage but did not lead to any breakthroughs.

Now, after many years, we find ourselves again in a whirlpool of politics, diplomacy and a new pandemic. How lucky we are that we can find comfort in the glimpses of Paradise which still adorn many sites in Jerusalem.

Tours of Jerusalem's Armenian ceramics and visits to the Glimpses of Paradise exhibition take place every week, in cooperation with the Israel Museum, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and East Jerusalem Development Ltd.

You are invited to join us:

Image credits: the Sledmere estate, Yorkshire, and the grave of Mark Sykes, Yorkshire: Nirit Shalev-Khalifa; photo of Sir Mark Sykes: courtesy of Wikipedia.