Unlike Syria, Palestine and Egypt, the trading history of Jordan mostly revolves around goods passing through rather than being produced; no city within the boundaries of modern Jordan has ever come close to matching the craftsmanship on display in the workshops and bazaars of Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem and Cairo.
Traditionally, people in Jordan have simply made whatever they needed for themselves – carpets, jugs, jewellery – without their skills being noticed or valued by outside buyers. Today, although a handful of outlets around the country sell local (and some imported) crafts, Jordan has no Damascus-style craft bazaars. You may come across items of aesthetic value here and there, but your chances of picking up bargain antiques are very small, and any that you might come across almost certainly originate from outside Jordan. For the record, Jordanian law forbids the purchase of any item dating from before 1700.
There are only three rules of bargaining: first, never to start the process unless you want to buy; second, never, even in jest, to let a price pass your lips that you’re not prepared to pay; and third, never to lose your temper. However, the lack of a tradition of bazaar-style haggling results in a reluctance among Jordanian merchants even to embark on the process. In most everyday situations, you’ll rapidly be brought up short against an unbudgeable last price – which, unlike in the Cairo or Damascus bazaars, really is the last price, take it or leave it.
The field where Transjordanian people have the strongest tradition is in hand-embroidered textiles, although up to a few decades ago such fabrics tended to stay within the confines of the town producing them and generally never came onto the open market. Embroidered jackets, dresses and cushion covers are now available everywhere, in both traditional and modern styles, but relatively few are high-quality, handmade items.
Sheep’s wool and goat’s hair have been used since time immemorial to weave tents, carpets, rugs, cushions, even food-storage containers, for family use; the two fibres woven together form a waterproof barrier. Rarer camel hair went to make rugs. Up until the 1920s, natural dyes were always used: 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 colours fast.
Since the 1980s, local and international development projects – Save The Children among them – have been involved in nurturing traditional bedouin weaving. By doing so, and by establishing retail outlets in Amman and elsewhere for the sale of woven items, they have managed to rejuvenate a dying craft, and simultaneously create extra sources of income for the weavers, who are almost without exception rural women. The quality of carpets, rugs and home furnishings produced under these various projects is first-rate, although prices are high as a result.
The older, more traditional colours – 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 colours and more modern patterns, to appeal to a new, Western-inspired clientele, but there is usually a good range of traditional and modern pieces on offer. In Madaba, Jerash and Irbid you may see carpet shops featuring upright treadle looms; these are operated only by men, and almost exclusively in the cities, to produce mainly derivative items for sale. These have their own appeal, but the majority of traditionally designed woven pieces are made by women, who use only a flat ground loom, which they set up either in front of their home tent in springtime or at village workshops.
A more affordable woven craft is weaving with straw, a skill of northern Jordanian women, to produce large multicoloured trays, mats, storage containers or wall-hangings. Baskets made of local bamboo, woven by men in Himmeh (aka Mukhaybeh) on the River Yarmouk, often find their way to Amman for sale in crafts centres.
Many Jordanians have inherited their parents’ and grandparents’ preference – stemming partly from previous generations’ nomadic existence, and partly from a rural mistrust of urban institutions – for investing their money in jewellery rather than banks. Until recently, bedouin brides wore their personal wealth in silver jewellery, and retained the right throughout their married lives to do with it what they wanted, husbands’ wishes notwithstanding. Owning jewellery was – and still is – something of a safety net for women against the possibility of abandonment, divorce or widowhood.
Traditionally, the bedouin much preferred silver to gold; indeed, it’s just about impossible to find genuine old gold in Jordan. The Gold Souk – a collection of tiny modern jewellery shops huddled together in Downtown Amman – has excellent prices, but almost everything is of generic modern design.
If you’re after more distinctive jewellery, you should be aware that, although there are a few Jordanian designers producing new, handmade items, practically all the new jewellery you’ll see in craft shops has been imported from Turkey, India or Italy. Chunky bedouin jewellery that looks old generally turns out to have been made seventy or eighty years ago, and much old “silver” is in fact a mix of eighty percent silver and twenty percent copper. Practically all the “old” necklaces you might see will have been strung recently on nylon thread using stones and silver beads from long-dispersed older originals.
However, none of this detracts from the fact that beautiful and unique items are available; especially striking are necklaces that combine silver beads with beads of coloured glass, amber or semiprecious stones. Different stones have different significances: blue stones protect the wearer from the evil eye, white stones stimulate lactation during breastfeeding, and so on. You might also find rare Circassian enamelwork, dramatically adding to a silver bracelet or necklace’s charm. However, note that all precious stones in Jordan are imported, mostly from Turkey.
In Amman, copper and brass items, such as distinctive long-spouted dalleh coffee-pots, candlesticks, embossed or inlaid platters and the like, are generally mass-produced Indian and Pakistani pieces. You might find original Yemeni or Iraqi curved silver daggers on sale, in amongst the reproductions.
Wood is a scarce resource in Jordan, and although you may discover some Jordanian-carved pieces (simple cooking implements, mostly, of local oak and pistachio) practically all the elegant wooden furniture you’ll come across – wardrobes, chairs, beautiful inlaid chests and the like – originates (and is much cheaper) in Syria. You might spot some original hand-carved wooden implements used in the bedouin coffee-making process, such as a mihbash, or grinder, and a mabradeh, an ornamented tray for cooling the coffee beans after roasting. Prices in Amman for olive-wood or mother-of-pearl pieces from Bethlehem or the famous blown glass of Hebron (formerly made in Na’ur, just outside Amman) can be half what you might pay in Jerusalem.