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The handicrafts industry in Jordan blossoms2

Woman in Wadi Rum making a rug

Introduction

Jordan has many beautiful and interesting handicraft traditions that reflect its unique culture and history. Handicrafts made in Jordan are varied and include woven rugs, mouth blown glass, painted glass, jewelry, silver, earthenware ceramics, embroidery, mosaics, basketry, and carved wood products. These traditional crafts are representative of Jordan’s diverse cultural heritage. Certain parts of Jordan are known for specific crafts. Madaba is famous for its mosaics, and Jerash for its carpets for example. Tourists, as well as locals, looking for authentic Jordanian souvenirs and gifts, or household items that evoke memories and the spirit of Jordan will find an array of hand crafted products to suit their tastes and budget.

 Al Burgan embroidered home decorations

A brief history of Jordanian handicrafts

 Traditional Jordanian Rugs

Handicrafts in Jordan have an impressive and historical heritage. Multiple ancient civilizations have left their footprint on Jordan over the centuries. Not only do major ancient trade routes, established over 5,000 years ago, stretch across Jordan from north to south, they continued to be used as main and vital routes along the Silk Road, thereby exchanging knowledge, culture, art and religion between the major centers of civilization in Europe, Africa and Asia. The Nabataeans, the ingenious architects of Petra, were ancient Arabian merchants who controlled trade routes across the region and were famous for incense such as frankincense and myrrh, and other perfumes and spices, not to mention highly skilled in crafts such as ceramics. These roads were used and rebuilt by the Romans, and were also important pilgrimage routes for both Christians and Muslims. The more recent history of the 19th and 20th centuries has seen Palestinians, Circassians and Armenians – seeking refuge in Jordan – bring their artistic heritage with them, further influencing the diverse cultural traditions in Jordan. Until very recently, Arab women, and particularly those among the Bedouins, were responsible for producing all their family and home’s needs, and were skilled in a wide variety of crafts needed for daily life and special occasions. Not only did their handmade Jordanian crafts showcase their personal skill, it also displayed their family’s status and tribal affiliations. Today, although modern conveniences have taken over, some skills are still handed down in most homes from generation to generation, such as embroidery. Traditional clothing and home furnishings are experiencing a modern revival. Many young women are choosing to wear custom handmade traditional Jordanian dresses at occasions such as their marriage ceremonies, for example, and in Jordan there are many skilled, creative and affordable fashion designers to choose from.

Handicrafts impact local communities

Handicraft production in Jordan is helping to provide new sources of income and employment and alleviating poverty in areas that provide few other employment opportunities. Jordan’s handicraft producers are comprised mostly of small businesses and artisans in low income, rural communities where traditional skills are passed down from generation to generation. Jordanian women in both urban and rural areas constitute a large number of the artisans in this sector, due to advantages such as the ability to work from home which is more acceptable within the family and community, flexible work hours and because of the minimal start-up capital needed. Income earned by women helps them to become financially secure and independent and improves their families’ standard of living.
Women handicraft producers often become community leaders and decision makers, and become active players in the economic and political structures and processes of their societies, and are thus critical to improving the health, education and overall wellbeing of their whole community. Handicraft production in Jordan’s rural communities is benefiting both its local communities and its natural heritage, as many handicraft initiatives have been established to give locals an alternative source of income that does not involve stripping the land of its natural resources.

woman painting on ceramic plate

Jordanian Handicrafts

The following is a brief description of just a few of handmade crafts to be found in Jordan:

Pottery and Ceramics

Petra was a major production center of pottery. Pottery was produced there for six centuries, from the first up to the sixth century AD. Nabataean pottery was considered the most sophisticated in the Middle East. The highly skilled potters used the wheel to produce refined egg-shell thin bowls and painted their wares with beautiful designs depicting nature using paints produced from the natural sandstone of Petra. Today, the art of Nabataean Painted Fine Ware is being revived by the Petra Pottery Association, established by local women from Wadi Musa, Petra who hand craft these beautiful ceramics.

Mosaics

Mosaics were used to decorate the floors, walls and ceilings of many buildings in Jordan, mainly between the first and eighth centuries AD. These colorful mosaics depicted scenes of everyday life, religious stories or mythological themes. Madaba, which is one of the oldest cities still existing, is famous for the mosaic map of the Holy Land in the Church of St George, made in the sixth century and used to guide pilgrims making their way between holy sites in the region. Today, Madaba is home to the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration, where local students learn the art of making mosaics by hand, as well as scientific preservation and restoration of the country’s historic mosaic treasures. Madaba is a hub for local mosaic artisans, workshops and shops. Handmade mosaic crafts are very popular as gifts and souvenirs and provide local artisans with most of their income. Mosaic crafts range from small items such as coasters and picture frames, to large items such as wall hangings and decorated furniture.

Weaving

Weaving is a Bedouin tradition usually passed down from mother to daughter. Traditionally, when Bedouins greet their guests, the sitting area is furnished entirely with beautiful hand woven carpets and cushions. Carpets are still a source of pride among local women. Sheep wool and goat hair are used to weave tents, carpets, rugs, cushions, and storage containers; woven together the two fibers form a waterproof barrier. More expensive camel hair went to make rugs. Natural dyes were still used until recently: indigo (planted in the Jordan Valley), pomegranate, onion peel and mulberries were all common, as was the sumac berry (red), kermes insect dye (crimson), cochineal (pink), and even yellowish soil. Salt, vinegar or soda were added in order to make the colors fast. When Jordan’s Bedouins began to settle in houses, they started to buy material instead of making their own and the traditional weaving knowledge almost disappeared. This art form is being revived by the local women of Wadi Rum, where people still set up tents outside their homes as they prefer sitting in them to sitting indoors. Today, hand woven carpets, runners, decorative tapestries and more are crafted by local Bedouin women, introducing a touch of desert beauty to any home. Traditional material has been adapted into stylish and eye catching handbags, purses and other items to appeal as gifts and souvenirs. The older, more traditional colors (deep reds, navy blues, greens, oranges and blacks), as well as the traditional styles of stripes and diamonds, are being augmented these days by brighter, chemically dyed colors and more modern patterns, to appeal to a new clientele. A wide range of both traditional and modern pieces are usually on offer. The majority of traditionally designed woven pieces are made by women, using only a flat ground loom, which they set up either in front of their home tent in springtime or at village workshops. Weaving with straw is a more affordable woven craft to produce multicolored trays, mats, storage containers or wall hangings. Jordanian women of the north are particularly skilled in this art. Men also weave baskets made of local bamboo.

Embroidery and traditional dress

Hand-embroidered textiles and needlework are two of Jordan’s strongest craft traditions. Traditionally, dresses embroidered with specific colors and patterns would identify what village an Arab woman came from. Jordanian girls learned the art of embroidery from their mothers and grandmothers, and at one time, girls of all social classes embroidered their own trousseau. A bride’s trousseau consisted of around six to twelve loosely cut robes which she would wear throughout her lifetime. A girl highly skilled in embroidery was expected to attract a quality husband, with older village women judging her skill and playing matchmaker. Handmade embroidered jackets, dresses and cushion covers are available everywhere, in both traditional and modern styles. A number of programs are helping to revive the art of needlework as well as provide local women with supplemental income. High end designs by local fashion designers, such as Abla Azar, are very popular today among Jordanian women, especially to wear on special occasions such as weddings, and are often seen modelled on local catwalks. It is worth paying more for the hand embroidered, high quality items rather than the cheaper machine-embroidered replicas. Popular traditional colours range from shades of red, maroon, purple, and pink, with bright additions of green, orange, and gold. Motifs include trees, flowers, feathers, waves, and geometric zigzags or triangles.

Jewelry

Arab brides wear much of their personal wealth in jewelry; these days mainly gold. This jewelry makes up part of a bride’s dower, a mandatory gift from her husband upon marriage, and she is free to do with it as she wishes in her lifetime, providing a safety net in case of future trials such as divorce or widowhood. Traditionally, Bedouin women preferred silver to gold. Striking statement pieces with chunky silver and semiprecious stones are typical of traditional Bedouin jewelry. Incorporated in the designs are usually colored glass, amber and semiprecious stones. Different stones have different significances; blue stones protect the wearer from the evil eye for example. A number of talented Jordanian jewelry designers, including Nadia Dajani, Lama Hourani and the Nabataean Ladies Cooperative, are producing contemporary Arabic jewelry; their unique lines are inspired by Arabic culture, heritage, nature and art.

Mouth blown glass

Jordanian glass blowers are some of the most skilled craftsmen in the region, producing the finest mouth blown glass objects in traditional and regional styles. Glass blowers use a hollow pipe to scoop up a lump of molten glass from a 900 degree Celsius furnace and while continuously rotating the glowing orb, they blow through the pipe. Once the glass has been blown and expanded to its desired size, it is cooled in a special chamber. Jordan’s artisans produce beautiful handcrafted vases, bottles, glasses and other objects in colours such as royal blue and rich green.

Sand Bottles

Sand bottles are as iconic to Jordan as Petra. Jordan’s sand bottles are traditionally crafted by artisans in the south, in Petra and Aqaba, using the vibrant natural colours of local sandstone, of which there are 20 naturally occurring shades, including the pink shades that made Petra famously known as the rose-red city. These days some artisans include artificially coloured sand for an extra pop of colour, but the natural tones remain most popular. The artisans bring their sand bottles to life with charming desert scenes of undulating sand dunes, camels, and names or words of the buyer’s choosing, and make a perfect souvenir or gift from Jordan. It is said that a Petra Native, Mohammed Abdullah Othman, taught himself the craft as a child, collecting his material from nearby mountains and caves.

Wood Carving

Olive wood carving is thought to date back to 4th Century Bethlehem, following the construction of the Church of the Nativity. Christian monks taught the art to the city’s residents. Palestinian settling in Jordan brought the art with them, and Jordan is now well known for its many skilled artisans in wood carving and also mother of pearl carvings. Olive wood is ideal for craft-making, one of the reasons being its resistance to decay. Olive wood is carved using simple hand tools. Boxes, picture frames, candle holders, rosaries, vases and religious ornaments and figurines are very popular. Mother of pearl is often incorporated into wooden carved designs. Local Jordanian designers, such as Madaline Marrar, are adding a modern touch to this ancient craft.

Ostrich Eggs

Uniquely designed, hand painted and carved ostrich eggs, made by women from the Azraq Wetland Reserve, using a special dotting technique on infertile ostrich eggs make a beautiful and truly unique handmade gift or souvenir from Jordan.

Handmade Recycled Paper

Recycled paper is handmade into new paper products such as notebooks and cards, incorporating natural elements such as dried leaves and flowers.

Leather making

Candle lanterns, nature boxes, and other gifts crafted out of goat skin handmade by local Bedouin women of Feynan.

Handmade Soaps

Jordan is a producer of some of the world’s highest quality, cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil, and the hilly north of the country is particularly known for the quality of their oil due to the prevalence of groves of ancient olive trees lovingly tended by generations of local farming families. Orjan Soap House is based in the village of Orjan, Ajloun in Jordan, and makes exceptional handmade soaps. Orjan Soap House hand-makes 17 different varieties of soap using olive oil and organically home-grown herbs, and never uses harmful synthetic chemicals, preservatives, artificial dyes or synthetic fragrance oils. All of the handmade soaps are made in small batches to ensure the quality and freshness of each batch. Orjan Soap House is run by local Jordanian women whose families have lived in the neighborhood for generations.

Handicraft Map

map of the handicrafts industry in Jordan

The north of Jordan is famous for its ceramics and pottery, rug making, weaving and textiles. The north is also known for its production of natural olive oil soap, produced from local olive oil. Ostrich eggs are produced by skilled artisans in the north east. Central Jordan is the handicraft hub, with many traditional artisanal cities and towns such as Madaba and Salt located in the center of the country. In particular, mosaics, ceramics, textiles and embroidery, wood carving, mother of pearl carving, painted glass, modern and traditional jewelry, traditional dresses, sculptures, arabesque furniture, paintings many more form of artistic crafts. The Dead Sea produces a wide range of cosmetic and beauty products from the healing salts and minerals of the Dead Sea. The south of Jordan is known for its textiles, weaving and leather craftsmanship produced by local Bedouin communities, as well as high quality ceramics and pottery and silver jewelry craftsmanship. Artisans in the south are known for creating mouth blown glass and for sand art and sand bottles.

Challenges facing Jordan’s handicraft sector

Despite a great amount of quality products available, one area in which Jordanian handicraft producers are lacking is the know how to market and sell their products effectively and to access external markets. For this reason, Jordanian handicrafts are not as widely recognized outside of Jordan as crafts from other countries in the region might be. Added to that, competition from cheap imported souvenirs is as much a problem in Jordan as it is around the globe. It is cheaper and easier for wholesalers and retailers to source products from outside of the country. Producers of handicrafts in Jordan include non-governmental organizations and cooperatives with handicraft programs employing mostly women from low income backgrounds; micro and small enterprises; and individual or family groups of artisans. There are a number of Jordanian designers who work with producers to design for local, tourist and external markets. The two main handicraft associations in Jordan include the Jordan Handicraft Producers Association and the Jordanian Handicrafts Traders Association, the official body for licensing handicrafts in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (under its Wild Jordan brand), Noor Al Hussein Foundation, Jordan River Foundation and the Jordan Hashemite Fund for Development are examples of organizations implementing successful high end handicraft programs. A National Strategy for Tourism Handcraft Development in Jordan was produced to help develop Jordan’s handcraft sector.