One of the greatest civilizing achievements of man, the Great Silk Road, provided decisive cultural stimuli over the course of the centuries, and sent important ideas and inventions out into the world. It left an indelible mark on the golden leaves of history.
The legendary paper of Samarkand was as famous as the porcelain, Chinese silk and Indian spices carried on the trade routes of the Silk Road.
In July 751, Chinese war soldiers forced their way across the Talas River (today in Kyrgyzstan) near the town of Jambul into Central Asia. Abu Muslim, at that time the Regent of Samarkand, sent his warriors against the unexpected enemy, conquering them and returning to Samarkand with over 20,000 Chinese prisoners of war. In order to save their own lives, the Chinese prisoners – who had been craftsmen in their homeland – revealed the secret of paper manuacturer to Samarkand craftsmen, and taught them how to do it. From then on, paper was produced in Samarkand. In the 9th century, this craft became one of the most important economic factors of the town. Samarkand paper gradually captured all the markets of East and West. In the entire world of the Orient, Samarkand paper started to be used just as much as Egyptian parchment. An impressive example is the fact that, in the 9th to 10th centuries, most works and historical manuscripts were written on paper produced in Samarkand.
Samarkand craftsmen, who had developed their activities over a period of one thousand years, developed the technology to produce one of the thinnest, smoothest and most durable papers in the world that could be written on in ink on both sides without being soaked up. Whilst the white paper «the Samarkand Sultan Paper», stands out from the other sorts of paper with its thinness, smoothness and softness, «the Samarkand Silk Paper» has a fairly high quality, but has a yellowish color. The «Mir Ibrohim» – Paper has round, drop-like traces and «Nimkanop» has a brownish color because it is made from leftover pieces of silk mixed with bark fibers. Cotton, silk and the bark of the mulberry tree, the «Morus alba», are used as the raw material for these types of paper.
For several centuries, about two thousand water-mills on the Siyob River were in operation and more than 400 of them were suitable for the manufacture of the paper.
Scholars, historians and travellers who came to Samarkand were amazed at the quality and durability of this paper. Reports about Samarkand paper written by various historians and writers are proof of this.
According to information from the Arab historian Al-Makdisiy (10th century), the arrows made in Choresm, the porcelain bowls made in Tashkent and the Samarkand paper along the Silk Road were the products which sold best.
The Timur descendant Babur who had founded the Babur Empire in India said the following about this paper in his famous work «Baburnama»:
«The best paper in the world is produced in Samarkand. It is made in the Konigil water-mill on the Siyob River, also called Obi Rahmat».
According to the Persian historian Abu Mansur Saalibi (10th century), Samarkand paper was of a better quality than Egyptian parchment – a day and night difference.
The famous Persian calligraph Sultonali Maschhadiy (15th to 16th century) recommended working with Samarkand paper: «Samarkand paper is very good! If you are clever, you will not reject this paper: The writing on Samarkand paper is even and fine-looking..»
The famous Orientalist and philologist Arminius Vambery, who came to Central Asia in 1863, described Samarkand paper as follows: «The paper produced in Buchara and Samarkand has a good reputation all over Turkestan and in the neighboring countries.»
The Russian archaeologist V.Vjatkin, who lived in Uzbekistan at the beginning of the 20th century and who carried out excavations of many historical objects, wrote the following: «Samarkand is famous all over the world for its rare paper which is exported in large quantities to various countries».
During the reign of the Emir Timur (14th to 15th century), paper production was one of the most important handicrafts in the country. About 42 manufactories were in operation until the beginning of the 18th century in Samarkand and the surrounding area. Later on, this branch of handicrafts spread to other areas of the country such as Kokand, Buchara and Tashkent.
After the collapse of the Timur Empire, wars were fought amongst the local regents. The country was constantly being attacked by different invaders. The result was an economic crisis and many handicraft businesses in Samarkand had to close. The craftsmen moved to more peaceful places such as Kokand (in the village «Qogozgir and Tschorku»). From then on, Kokand became one of the most important centers for paper manufacture. This tradition lasted until 1930.
In 1995, an international UNESCO Conference was held in Kogon, part of Buchara district, on the subject «Preservation of historical places of interest». During this event, attention was drawn to the development of this ancient local craft which was gradually dying out. Participants were not only craftsmen from various areas and towns of Uzbekistan but also Zarif Muchtorov from Samarkand with a project regarding the re-establishment of the production of Samarkand paper, which was famous and popular all over the Orient but the production of which had died out over the centuries. Zarif Muchtorov, a descendant of a famous family of craftspeople from Samarkand, decided to start up this type of applied art again in his home. He went to libraries to research historical texts and documents and traveled to many paper manufacturers all over the world in order to learn the technique thoroughly.
After much researching in the years between 1995 and 2002, he had learnt the secret of the art of manufacturing paper and, with the support of the Uzbek government, of UNESCO and of the international Agency «JEIKA» from Japan, he founded the craft center «Konigil-Meros» (paper manufacture) in the beautiful area of the village «Konigil» on the Siyob River. Samarkand paper is produced here today, in this self-sufficient paper manufacturing company, from the bark of the «Morus alba» mulberry tree, called the «mulberry fruit Balchi» by the people and known all over Central Asia.
This field of handicrafts, like every other field, has its difficulties and successes. To produce this paper, the branches of the mulberry tree are soaked in water for several days. Then the bark is stripped off, following which the brownish part is separated using a knife. The yellow bark pieces are then boiled for five to six hours in a large caldron. The bark pieces are then pestled in a large mortar for seven to eight hours by a beam driven by a hammer mechanism until the mixture is very pliant and fibrous.
As a next step, this pulp is mixed with water from the Siyob River in a large caldron. Then the paper is scooped from the caldron with a frame. It takes eight to ten hours to bring the wet paper into shape in a wooden press and then stick it onto a smooth board or a window pane. Finally, the paper is smoothed on a marble slab with a shell or an agate stone. And this is how Samarkand paper is made.
Of course the question arises as to whether it is even necessary to produce paper by hand under such difficult conditions in this age of scientific-technical revolution. But Samarkand paper, that was transported 1000 years ago by caranvansaries into many far-off countries along the Silk Road and considered as the most precious commodity, is used still today not only by Uzbek painters and calligraphers but also for restoring historical manuscripts and works in both Uzbekistan and Japan.
Local young people also work today in this self-sufficient handicraft center «Konigil-Meros» under the direction of Zarif Muchtorov. In this paper manufactory on the edge of the town, the almost forgotten art of producing Samarkand paper was again brought to life, just as our ancestors presented their handiwork 1000 years ago. This is a really commendable achievement and triggers great interest on the part of all the international guests.
© Source: www.oybekostanov.com
© DOCA TOURS – Discover Oriental Central Asia