Jordan's abandoned weaving tradition holds history in its fibres

Patterns, materials and methods of production reflect the kingdom's heritage, says dealer and collector Khalil Naouri

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When Jordanian antique carpet dealer Khalil Naouri was growing up in Amman in the late 1950s, the two-room house he and his 10-member family lived in was bare.

His father, Eid, worked at Jordan’s only cement factory and money was tight.

It took a trip to Syria with a friend in the early 1990s to arouse Mr Naouri's interest in carpets. The country was the weaving centre of the Levant, and many of the Middle East’s top dealers were Syrian.

Mr Naouri became a specialist in Jordanian rugs and other woven items, made mostly by women working on simple looms, after "realising the beauty" of their individual production despite mostly adverse circumstances. The cottage industry, in villages and desert dwellings across Jordan, became largely extinct by the 1960s as people switched to mass-produced alternatives.

“Marvels were produced from the finest hand-spun wool and natural dyes. They were abandoned for $6 Chinese plastic rugs," Mr Naouri says.

The old weavings indicate that even people in inhospitable environments with meagre resources had refined taste, he says.

Marvels were produced from the finest hand-spun wool and natural dyes

A market for these woven items developed among the 20 or so tribes present in post-independence Jordan. When tribes forged alliances, the weaving incorporated patterns that were previously peculiar to each tribe, shedding light on the relations, relative wealth and trade between different areas.

Influences cut across history and the modern borders of the Middle East. Nabatean motifs from Petra were incorporated into the weavings of Bedouins who came to live in the area much later in history. The weavers of the southern Jordan desert looked to the Negev in what is now Israel for inspiration.

Almost every piece was unique, and used in everyday life.

Among the items they produced was the "saha", an elaborate piece that was hung up to separate the men and women's quarters in a tent; the iliga and idl (bags with and without handles to store dried food; "figeh" (a small countryside rug); "gafaya" (covering for a camel's hindquarters); and "mafrash" (a long rug placed in Bedouin tents).

Raw materials consisted mainly of camel pile, sheep's wool and goat hair, spun on a hand spindle and dyed with the extracts from plants, trees and crushed insects. In a region of such limited resources, wool was so expensive that weavers sometimes used yarn made from old clothes, the traces of which can be found in the edges of weavings.

While Jordanian weaving lacks the demand from collectors that niche pieces from Syria have, and the worldwide fame of Persian rugs, they can be just as beautiful, and even more distinct, Mr Naouri says.

At Shiraz, his shop in the Seventh Circle area of Amman, Mr Naouri lifts a heavy dark brown weaving that has a white core pattern.

It was once part of a Bedouin tent.

“Look at what the Howeitat produced,” he says.

The Howeitat tribe in southern Jordan played a role in the formation of the modern Middle East by allying with the British in the First World War. The Howeitat's sheikh, Auda Abu Tayeh, was played by Anthony Quinn in David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia.

While the Howeitat production tended to be rough, a reflection perhaps of the harshness of their surroundings, the weaves of the Beni Hameideh, who live in less forbidding area farther north, used wool from newborn sheep.

"It feels like silk," Mr Naouri says, adding that the Beni Hameideh pieces are also distinguished by wide tassels.

Areas closer to Syria and Palestine produced even more sophisticated items, using different loom techniques and more intricate designs, such as the north-east of Jordan, a stronghold of the Beni Hassan tribe, and the town of Hosn, near Syria's Hauran plain.

The Beni Hassan developed a trademark zigzag pattern that they often interrupted with intentional defects because they believed, like others across the Middle East, that perfection belongs only to God.

Hosn's weavers incorporated cotton imported from Syria into their mostly wool rugs. The mix, Mr Naouri says, "had to be done skilfully", otherwise the dye from the wool would run over the cotton.

Weavers in what is now the city of Salt in central Jordan were influenced by techniques in the Palestinian area of Hebron, and "ended up in some cases surpassing the Hebronites", he says.

Mr Naouri, a tall man who goes on long hikes in Jordan where nomads roamed centuries ago, currently has about 200 pieces of Jordanian weavings for sale.

He has a private collection of another 100 pieces, many of which were used in his 2013 book Hands and Hearts: Weavings from Jordan. His brother Ibrahim, a prominent Jordanian businessman, sponsored the book.

One American customer, who taught at a high school in Jordan, bought more 100 pieces from Mr Naouri over several years.

He and other western customers, especially from France, have far more appreciation for the weavings than the Jordanians whose ancestors made them, Mr Naouri says.

"Ask yourself what is the heritage of Jordan? It's mainly these weavings," he says, calling for a national museum to be set up, with a workshop on the premises.

His own appreciation for the craft and the artisans behind it traces its roots to Karim Saleh, the friend who took him to Syria and who has an important collection of carpets of his own.

Mr Saleh “stopped everywhere, had tea with everyone”, in his quest for rare pieces.

Updated: June 30, 2023, 6:00 PM