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"Souvenirs, souvenirs!" :
shopping in Jordan

What to bring back for the family from a visit to Jordan?

 

Here are some comments on the most common souvenirs offered for sale in most souvenir shops. The list is absolutely not exhaustive - I should need the whole website! I have referred in several instances to souvenir shops in Petra, and give a short commentary on them at the end, but in fact, these objects can be found just about everywhere that souvenirs are sold!

Among the most popular things to buy in Jordan are the decorated sand bottles, sometimes with the most intricate designs done in the sand, with the aid of a knitting needle and a funnel! The photo above, while very colourful (I couldn't resist it!), shows the young man using DYED sand, that is to say ordinary beach or desert sand mixed with powdered colours. These coloured designs will fade fairly soon and very quickly indeed if exposed to the sun. It is better if possible to buy the bottles in Petra, where the sand used is almost always the natural sand of the rocks. These bottles and the sand in them are often referred to (by the salesmen!) as "Petra's treasure".

Prices of these bottles vary enormously according to the design and the size of the bottles. While the fair-sized bottles shown above seem to have pretty detailed designs (I have become something of an expert in sand bottles!) the dyed sand takes away from the price. I expect the young man would sell these for 5 or 6JD each. Bottles of the same quality done with natural sand are more likely to cost 8 to 10JD. But the starting price for simple sand bottles, with or without a camel done in the sand, is around 2 or even 1JD. You can get a name written in the sand for 1JD extra. If you want something really fine, an intricate design or a large bottle, then the price can run up to 10 or 20JD or often more, sometimes much more. Some of the work done is quite extraordinary. Very often a stallholder will have a large bottle on display with samples of all the possible designs worked in the sand. If you ask the price of this sort of bottle, he is likely to reply 100JD - he might take less if you are set on it, but to tell the truth he doesn't really want to sell this bottle, it is a "showpiece". You can gauge the quality of the bottles on sale by the number of dishes of coloured sand nearby: a good worker might have ten or twelve different colours available. "Sahlah" at the Sandcastle shop in Petra often has fifteen (I shall be mentioning this shop again, it is a very good shop, larger than most and has an enormous range of objects, many of them of high quality).

It is, by the way, strictly not allowed to chip away parts of the rocks, the stones that one often sees being sold as souvenirs down in Petra are usually picked up in one of the stream beds, they get washed down after any rain. Some of these stones are highly decorative, with bands of different colours. But the sand bottle makers usually have their own sources away from Petra, (and strictly private!) where they can collect larger stones of one colour to crush down and use. This crushing is hard work, especially as the finer designs are made with sand that is crushed until it can go through a very fine sieve, and resembles powder. When the design is finished, the sand is compacted until it becomes very solid, and if done properly will not move if shaken. Eventually this turns into rock again, with the design complete. Often a stallholder will have a broken bottle on show, with the design exposed to air.

A large bottle incidentally, can be turned into an attractive and original table lamp. The only problem is that it's heavy to carry home. You might like to look at http://www.sandandart.com/

Most people obviously buy the cheaper articles, tee shirts, small earthenware articles (oil lamps, and the ubiquitous camels). The Arab "kefiyas" are popular: big cotton headscarves in black and white or red and white checked material. There is a big price range here, according to the quality of the material and especially of the decorative fringes. Some of these are done by hand and I know from having tried it just how long it takes to make them!

Our friend Mohammed is proudly showing all his top quality kefiyas with the hand made fringes clearly to be seen. Incidentally, many Bedouin don't like the bobbles hanging down

These kefiyas can also be worn with the double black headband holding them in place, but many people wear them without it, just wrapped around the head in one of many styles. They are very good indeed against the sun, protecting not only the head but also the back of one's neck. Prices run from a dinar or two (this quality will fall to pieces very quickly and is NEVER bought by the locals) to ten or twelve dinars or perhaps even more for a top quality one with a hand made fringe. As well as protecting from the sun in the hot weather, they also keep one's head lovely and warm in the winter and the really good ones are surprisingly waterproof when put to the test.

The blue ones (there are green ones too) are pretty but are for sale to tourists. If one of the locals bought one, he would be likely to get funny looks from the other men!

There are many different kinds of jewellery available, from the beadwork done by the women and children of the bedouin, to marcasite silver - very popular this and very attractive. However, little of it is done locally, you can find much the same jewellery on sale anywhere between Turkey and India. In Wadi Mousa there is a "silver factory" sponsored by the Queen Noor Foundation where a number of the local women work at making jewellery. The designs are simple but very nice. You can find the earrings, bracelets, necklaces and rings that they make sold in several local shops. You can also visit the factory, but it is a fair way away from the touristic part of Wadi Mousa, up quite a hill above the Crown Plaza Hotel. You can always ask a taxi to take you there and to wait for you, otherwise it is a good 15-20 minutes walk just to come back. One problem is that few of the women here speak English, you would do better to go with your guide if you have one. But if you buy directly at the factory you will be given the wholesale rate. It is also possible to have a piece made to your specifications if you are in the neighbourhood for a few days. If by any chance you have bought any of the loose semi-precious stones sold in Egypt (a good buy this one!), this is the moment to have a ring or a bracelet made for you. The standard of workmanship is excellent.

Silver is almost always sold by weight, the shopkeeper will weigh the pieces before giving you a price. Most smaller pieces run to 15 or 20JD or so, the necklaces are heavier and more expensive.

In a very few shops you can sometimes find the very heavy authentic antique Yemeni necklaces, but these are very expensive and are seldom shown to all comers. If you are seriously interested have a look at the Sandcastle in Petra, ask for Abu Rami. But these necklaces easily run to 500JD and upwards. The Sandcastle also has a very good collection of knives, some of these are also Yemeni. You can't mistake this workmanship once you know it, and if you can afford it the Yemeni silver makes a wonderful purchase.

In this picture you can see the "Bedouin" knives which are not just for decoration but which would be used for serious work, and also the hand made fringe on the kefiya on the right (the one on the left looks a bit the worse for wear!) .

The red and white versions are popularly supposed to be Jordanian (the black and white being Palestinian or Syrian) and the Desert Patrol looks most romantic wearing the hand made fringed kefiyas. (I once asked a soldier if he had made the fringe himself, and he grinned and said "No, my mother did it", which just goes to show something or other.)

Knives in fact are fairly easy to find, good quality knives rather more difficult. They are usually perfectly authentic, especially the better ones, and most locals (all Bedouin) regularly carry a knife of some kind with them. I think it is safe to say that even when the "carrying knife" is a Swiss knife, they have also somewhere nearby a seriously sharpened knife like the ones carried by the Desert Patrol. The souvenir knives sold in most places are pretty blunt, and normally have a metal or horn handle. You might be told that the horn comes from the ibex or gazelle, in fact - sorry to disillusion you - usually it comes from a goat! A reasonably good knife (not as good as those required to work with) would cost something over 15JD, 25 or 30JD is not extraordinary for a good one. There are also imported knives around, made in places like Damascus and beautifully decorated. But there are a number available that cost between 5 and 10JD, and as long as you are not looking to kill something these are perfectly adequate. They make good paper cutters for instance - rather impressive if used correctly. You might be interested to know that almost all of these knives are still made by hand locally. Certainly a Bedouin would not buy a "shop-made" one ("unreliable!")

If you are in Wadi Rum, there is often a gypsy family camped there who make and sell knives that cannot be more "authentic" since this is where the Bedouin there buy most of their knives. Note that these are NOT tourist quality, and the prices are likely to be 30JD upwards according to the size. They can make a knife according to your specifications during the day.

A good deal of interest is shown in "narghilas" or water pipes. There is a most attractive shop in Aqaba where you can see a large choice of narghilas and which also sells ouds (the Arab lute). The narghilas are priced here, as elsewhere, between about 4JD and 45JD - the ouds from 45JD upwards. But for 45JD you don't get anything really but a piece of attractive looking wood - to get a good oud you need at least 150JD and for a really good one (musician quality) over 200JD.

This shop is on the left hand side of the road running down from the main market towards the sea, and the Housing Bank is on the southern end. You can also find a very large variety of "shisha" tobacco here. (There are a great many blanket shops on the other side of the road a very good buy if you should happen to be needing a blanket - the small ones cost from about 8-10JD and the larger ones from 23JD upwards, according to their weight. An unusual souvenir, I grant you, but they are beautiful blankets...)

Rugs : ah here you have a tremendous variety!

You can start with the locally woven ones, made usually by the Bedouin women and sold at many shops in Jordan. They are woven on a horizontal ground loom and dyed with the home made dyes. These tend to be simple in design, but are very robust - they can be shampooed and wear very well indeed. Since the looms are small, either the carpets are narrow, or they are made in strips and held together horizontally with what is really rough sewing. Sometimes you can persuade the salesman to detach them if you want a smaller version than what is being offered. Prices are obviously according to size, but usually between 20 and 30JD for a smallish one. (See the next page on Bedouin weaving)

Note the complicated pattern on the bands on this rug.

Simple prayer rugs are also easy to find, these are the rugs that are used everywhere by the locals. Preferred colours are red, green and blue. You probably know that prayer rugs are spread on the ground with the "head" of the rug laid towards Mecca. Prices somewhere around 12-15JD.

If you are interested in quality rugs from Jordan, you should check out the Bani Hamida weaving project. Their workshops are in Mukawir, just off the Kings' Highway, but they also have a shop in Amman where their work is displayed at the Jordan River Centre on Jebel Amman.  There is also a weaving workshop run by the Howeitat tribe at El Husseinyer on the Desert Highway north of Tafileh.

More exotic carpets from further afield, abound, I am not qualified to say much about them. Personally I rather like the colourful Iraqi ones, again these are artisan made. The carpets from Turkey and from Iran are well represented everywhere, the Sandcastle has a very large choice (photographed here), but the men there are knowledgeable, and you are unlikely to be able to get a real bargain!

An interesting thing to look at are the dresses and skirts on sale. In the souvenir shops you can find two sorts of these : the Indian cotton ones and the Palestinian embroidered ones.

The first are often quite attractive, but rather "peasant-like". They aren't bad if you have just brought pants with you and suddenly need or decide that you would like a dress or a skirt.

The second - ah! these are beautiful and very expensive. Thickly embroidered in cross-stitch on every side, these are invariably done by hand, dresses, skirts, waistcoats... The colours have a significance, there are several books available on them. If you can't afford 100JD upwards for a jacket, you can always buy a cushion cover which is also available and noticeably cheaper. A compromise could be a shawl, also beautifully embroidered, but much cheaper than the jackets, say around 20-30JD..

The ladies might well like to have a look at the local dress shops. I am thinking particularly of the ordinary "dishdashas" or "madrigas" worn by the women in Jordan. Many of them, especially the velvety ones to be found in the autumn are very attractive. There are different weights of velvet, they are wonderfully comfortable as housedresses, and stand to be worn for a restaurant dinner. I have slept in one in the desert (!) and I assure you that the next day it looked perfectly respectable. They wash beautifully, even in a washing machine in a "delicate" wash if you put them on a hanger to drip dry. Prices : how much do you want to pay? But you can probably find a good choice for 12-18JD which is actually very cheap indeed for what you get. They are usually embroidered (by machine) and you might need to "take up" odd threads, but I promise you they make a very good effect indeed! In Aqaba they are displayed in the commercial galleries outside the shops, which you might prefer to entering a shop and enquiring.

Other souvenirs available : masses of "stuff". Loads of what I can only call "glass thingummies" some of them rather nice, lots and lots of brass whatnots, ditto.

Among the glass objects you can also find a particular kind of crystal wine glasses, semi opaque and coloured. A good many people like these.

Marquetry imported from Syria is rather fine, there are many sizes of boxes, but also little tables (that fold up), very attractive. Backgammon boards are also available.

Jordanian ceramics are also very nice, plates and dishes make rather a good buy. They are very colourful, often with local views (the "Treasury", the Al Aqsa Mosque) or with a verse from the Koran ("God is Great").

Souvenir shops in Petra : there are a number of them down in the site, I am not concerning myself with these at the moment.

These are "thumbnail images", which were photographed in the Visitors' Centre in Petra. Click on them for enlargements. They show a display of knives, the jewellery boxes and the embroidered cushions - all very nice indeed!

Have a look at the Petra Visitors' Centre, there are a couple of small shops, one run for the benefit of the Rural Women of Jordan and another for the Ladies' Working Circle of Wadi Mousa. Their stock is rather limited but there are some very nice things there. I am thinking in particular of the jewellery/cigarette boxes, done in mother of pearl marquetry. Very attractive and very reasonably priced.

Behind the Visitors' Centre, on the way down to Petra, there are several good shops, the stock is larger but it is rather crammed in and isn't easy to look at it. Ahmed Sahedat and Khalid Shaban each have a good choice of modern jewellery. Higher up, on the road by the Movenpick Hotel, the Bedwina has a large choice of everything, including rugs. The Bedwina, like Ahmed, has a nice selection of Indian cotton dresses.

The Sandcastle is higher up close to the Silk Road Hotel. Don't miss at the very least a quick look in here, it's much bigger than it looks from the outside. In fact there are several other good smaller souvenir shops nearby. The same family as run the Sandcastle also have a shop in Petra, it's the little shop on the right just at the entrance to the Siq where the horses stop. They are very hospitable if you want to take a breather there after trudging up the Siq on the way home. They have a website at http://petrasandcastle.com/  which is very colourful and tells you a bit about the family as well.

Almost next door to the Sandcastle, you will find "Made in Jordan" a mixture of a display room and a showroom, where all the merchandise is really made in Jordan by skilled artisans. Much of it is made by people working with the Noor al Hussein Foundation and the Jordan River Foundation, but there is a good deal by independent workers who have difficulty in showing their work elsewhere. Obviously it is more expensive than the normal souvenir shops, but here you will find real quality.

Bookshops : "Jeff's Bookshop" is in the line of shops behind the Visitors' Centre, a small but comprehensive collection of books on Jordan and where you can also buy films and postcards - but these you can get just about anywhere. There is another bookshop near to the Sandcastle. Several of the souvenir shops also sell guidebooks.

Most of the souvenir shops would accept Visa Cards, but are likely to pass on to you the surcharge levied by Visa. I don't advise you to offer travellers' cheques, there is a very high commission charged by the bank. If you have no alternative, then change them at a bank yourself, the commission is less than that charged to shops.

And last but not least - as everybody will tell you :
"There's no charge for looking!"

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