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Souvenir shopping: Sand and mosaics from Jordan

Lakshmi Sharath
5 February 2013
Travel Jordan souvenirs Madaba mosaic
An artisan works on a Madaba mosaic replica.

Jordan is a country that surprises the traveller at every step. A little bit of the Romans, a little bit of the Bedouins, a journey into the Biblical era, a trip down the ages into the world of Nabataeans  -Jordan is a fusion of many ancient cultures. As a traveller, you want to soak into every aspect of it. Our journey takes us from the capital town of Amman into Jerash, a Roman town, and then onwards into spectacular Petra, into the deserts of Wadi Rum, and, of course, the Dead Sea.

I am spoilt for choices when it comes to buying souvenirs from here. There are jewellery, scarves, mosaics, ceramics and, of course, the usual fridge magnets and T shirts at every shop. But I am fascinated by a few colourful bottles.

As we walk through the mountains of Petra, we stop at the Bedouin tents and chat with the locals. And that is when our guide Abdul gives us a moment to breathe and look around. We see more tents filled with colourful glass bottles of different sizes and we learn about bottled sand art.

Petra, with its rose-red hues, is known for its multicoloured sands. These are collected in large cups and diligently arranged in layers inside a bottle, while the artist literally “paints” the motif. Some say the art started in the 1920s but the main design of silhouetted camels in a caravan plodding through a desert of colourful sands came up much later –almost 60 years ago. Layers of multi-hued sands in a desert, birds in a sky, a caravan ploughing through the desert, palm trees in an oasis – they look like delicate paintings inside a glass bottle.

I am told that the colours are real, as the sands are actually scraped from rock faces in Petra. I pick up a few bottles, one of them brightly painted with a combination of yellows and light browns as the camels take me to a lovely oasis in the desert. We are in a hurry, else I would have got my name etched on the sands of time.

Another fascinating souvenir is the mosaic of Madaba.  A town steeped in the Biblical era, Madaba holds the clues for many sites mentioned in the Old Testament, including Jerusalem and Bethany. Mosaics in the form of maps marked with these sites have been unearthed below many monuments here and these mosaics have become a veritable art form and a collectible souvenir.

We walk inside a workshop right outside Madaba near Mt Nebo. Here we see several artisans working on creating replicas of the original designs etched on the maps. The mosaics are handmade. Ancient symbols, monuments, trees, birds, scenes from Biblical tales, scenery, and geographical maps with rivers and mountains compete with contemporary designs and popular political and film personalities. There is Marilyn Monroe, for instance, staring from a mosaic tile. And a replica of ancient Jerusalem is in our midst.

I learn that there is a school that teaches locals to learn the art of preserving original mosaics as more such maps are unearthed frequently beneath every monument in Madaba. Some of the artisans are even taught the art of making these mosaics, which are sold in virtually every souvenir shop in Jordan.  I pick up a small wooden box with mosaics on the lid and a couple of mosaics depicting the tree of life before leaving Madaba and journeying towards the Dead Sea.

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