Petra, Jordan has always been associated with one of my favorite memories. In 1989, I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in the theaters with my mother when it was first released. The movie let us travel alongside Jones (famously played by Harrison Ford) as he rode his horse through rough hills and narrow canyons, and past the Treasury and Great Temple.
In 2021, I found myself in Jordan. In the lobby of the Petra Marriott Hotel, I spotted sand artist Reda Amarat surrounded by enchanting bottles of all sizes, ranging from delicate, palm-sized bottles to impressive liter-sized containers, full of colorful sand that depicted the region’s landscape. They included intricate scenes of mountains and valleys, Biblical scenes like the journey of the three wise men, and even the night sky filled with stars. Almost instantly, I was transported back to that theater.
Amarat originally hails from Wadi Musa, also known as the Valley of Moses—it’s the closest town to Petra’s archaeological site. The hills around Wadi Musa and Petra contain sandstones of varying shades of yellow, purple, brown, pink, and red, thanks to a millennia’s worth of accumulating sediment that was brought to the region by ancient seas and rivers. Petra’s famous monuments were carved from two distinct layers of sandstone—the gray-colored Disi Formation and the dazzling Ishrin formation, which is known for its dramatic red and orange hues. Both layers were formed around 500 million years ago, during the Paleozic era.
When he was 17, Amarat began practicing sand art and now, 30 years later, he is part of one of the few remaining families of sand artists. The craft of Jordanian sand art is believed to have been started by Khalifa Krishna, a painter who worked for the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force, in the early 20th century during the era of British occupation. Inspired by the multicolored sandstone cliffs of his homeland, Krishna used bottles discarded by British soldiers to build his creations. Picture jars started surfacing in the 1920s around the world and the art form has been gaining recognition ever since. To Amarat, his elaborate designs celebrate Jordan’s rich culture and history.
Amarat is a purist: he does not use additives or artificial colors in his designs. He grinds rocks that he collects himself into a fine flour-like consistency to create the sand that he works with. Every spring and winter, he hikes up and down the hills in search of colored rocks—it’s a labor of love. “Sometimes, I find boulders as big as a table with two or three colors,” he says. “I break [them] down with a hammer and even have to hire workers to help me carry the rocks to my car.”
When his father and grandfather were learning how to create sand art, Amarat says they used just two ingredients—sand and bottles—to create their art, a tradition he still faithfully adheres to. But over time, he wanted to explore more complicated designs. From floral motifs to hexagonal bottles showing detailed tableaus of desert life, Amarat has done it all. Small bottles can take him around 10 minutes to create, while larger pieces, can sometimes take up to 18 hours.
“True sand artists don’t use brushes or artificial colors,” he says. “They rely on their creativity, patience, proficiency, and a handful of colored sand to create their art.”
I ask Amarat if his kids will also become sand artists—he says no. He wants them to continue their schooling. It’s fine if his children learn sand art as a hobby, but he would prefer for them to focus on higher education.
“I will continue to create art that I learned from my father using rocks from these rose-colored hills. For me, the legacy of my people over thousands of years lies in the weight of this sand,” he says. “Petra’s cultural history will be preserved in these bottles for as long as people continue to dream of a connection between them and the lands they visit.”