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Samarkand Revives Ancient Craft

The art of making glossy “silk paper” is being revived in the ancient city of Samarkand.

Zarif Mukhtarov and his apprentices make about 50 sheets of the paper at his workshop on the banks of the river Siab, using techniques that have changed little in centuries.

The paper is not actually made from the silk for which Samarkand is famed, but from thin strips of bark, softened in water and pressed until it acquires the same sheen.

“First, my apprentices and I strip the bark from a mulberry tree and then we put the raw material in special moulds to make the paper,” said Mukhtarov, 50, who comes from a long line of craftsmen.

Hundreds of years ago, there used to be 400 water mills in the city, used to produce the paper.

“The mill we are using now used to be for cleaning rice,” explains another artisan.

Silk paper, also known as Sultan’s paper, was first produced almost 1,500 years ago. Until the ninth century, Samarkand was the only place where it was made and traded, finding its way to other destinations on the Silk Road.

Silk paper continued to be made by hand until to the 1920s, but with the advent of new technologies, the craft was lost.

Mukhtatov recalls how he became obsessed with reviving hand production. After studying the old techniques, he applied for grants from Germany and Japan and founded the Meros association of craftsmen.

The paper from his workshop is used to make miniatures, wedding cards and notebooks. Some restaurants have their menus printed on silk paper.

Mukhtarov’s son is learning the trade and told how tourists are now able to take part in papermaking as well as hearing about its history.

“The revival of silk paper production in Samarkand is important because it is the only craft in Central Asia that has been preserved down the centuries,” said a Japanese designer, who comes from a country where hand-made paper is considered an art form.

Horiguchi Kazunori of the Kyrgyz-Japanese Centre for Human Development in Bishkek provides training for craftsmen in Central Asia, but was surprised to hear that this thousand-year old tradition had made a comeback.

“I would like to visit the workshop and see this beautiful art with my own eyes,” said Kazunori.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

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