Monday, March 9, 2015

The Tradition & Passion of Paper Making.

Paper made in the workshop of Zarif Mukhtarov. (Photo from theguardian)

T he tradition of making paper dates back centuries in Samarkand.  For me, it all started when I read that we would be visiting a mulberry paper workshop.  I wanted to find out more about mulberry paper.  Little did I know the history I would uncover!


The Chinese invented paper in 49 BC. They began using it as a writing material in 105 AD.  By the 7th century, the use of paper had spread east to Japan and west to Samarkand.  Chinese paper was considered to be the finest quality available.

The story goes that the secrets of how to produce such high quality paper was revealed to the paper artisans of Samarkand via war.

Drawing depicting Chinese paper makers in Samarkand. 
(Drawing from Islamic Arts and Architecture)
The story continues that in the 8th century AD, Chinese troops invaded the territory of Central Asia but lost the battle against the leader of Samarkand, Abu Muslim.  Thousands Chinese were captured and among the lot were men from families of artisans, including paper makers.  While imprisoned, the paper makers were forced by their captors to produce mulberry paper and knowledge was then transferred to local people of Samarkand.

It wasn't that the people of Samarkand did not know how to make paper because they had been doing it themselves for centuries.  It's that they didn't know how to make paper of the high quality that the Chinese were producing.  So, Chinese prisoners forced to make paper was supposedly the start of the paper making tradition in Samarkand.

All paper is made of plant fibers of one sort or another and Samarkand paper was made from the bark of the mulberry tree, a tree which grows all around Samarkand.  Samarkand paper had a characteristic silky surface and a nice soft shade of ocher which was considered to be less taxing on the eyes when reading the contrasting black type of ancient calligraphy.

Over time, the paper craftsmen of Samarkand, known as *kogozgars* produced a paper that had a smooth surface, was very durable and most importantly - absorbed little ink.  Various types of paper, with differing qualities, were produced by the paper artisans in Samarkand including,
  • Samarkand Sulton kogozi (Sultan grade).  The most white in color with subtle variations in color.  Very smooth to the touch. 
  • Samarkand shoyi kogozi  (Silk grade) was also very smooth, and fine but a light yellow color.
  • Mir-Ibrahimi which had a watermark in the form of a white ring.

Paper and Islam collided when Arab forces reached Samarkand, where paper had been in use for just two generations. Under Arab rule, Samarkand became a paper making center.  By the time of the Middle Ages, Samarkand paper was so renowned for its quality and so desirable that paper produced in Samarkand dominated the markets.  It was particularly popular in Persia where it was used for religious manuscripts, official proclamations etc.

During the reign of Timur paper production expanded beyond Samarkand.  Workshops were established in Kokand, Bukhara, and Tashkent.

Samarkand's paper making tradition continued until the 19th century when the region was invaded by the Russians.  With that began the industrial revolution and paper made by hand was replaced by paper made in factories.  Subsequently, the centuries old techniques for making Samarkand paper disappeared.

Zarif Mukhtarov.  (Photo by Agha Iqrar Haroon )
Flash forward to 1995 when Zarif Mukhtarov, a master Uzbek potter, participated in a UNESCO conference dedicated to lost culture. Samarkand paper was one of the topics.  Learning that the traditional ways of making paper had long disappeared planted a seed in Mukhtarov to rediscover how to make the paper.

Mukhtarov can only be described as was a driven man because after this conference, he basically dedicated his life to reviving the centuries old tradition of paper making.   After years of studying relevant literature and experimentation, Mukhtarov was eventually able to figure out the technique needed to produce Samarkand paper.  Trials with cotton, rag waste and flax convinced Mukhtarov that the best paper was made from the bark of the mulberry tree, the same conclusion his ancient predecessors had arrived at centuries ago.

Meros is the name of Zarif Mukhtarov's workshop.
The word *meros* means *traditions*.
(Photo from advantour)
In 2001, Mukhtarov established his own paper workshop, named Meros, in the small village of Koni Ghil, located just a short distance outside Samarkand.  Many historians believe that Koni Ghil is where the Chinese paper makers were originally imprisoned and therefore, this is the birthplace of the paper making tradition in Samarkand.

More likely, it just so happens that Koni Ghil is located alongside the Siyob River.  Water from the streams turned wooden watermills that in turn, powered the large wooden poles that were used to crush the mulberry bark into pulp.  So, the location of Mukhtarov's workshop is not by coincidence.

Mukhtarov's singular passion to bring life back to paper making has been repeatedly tested.  When he originally set up his workshop in 2001, it was backed by an NGO with a small amount of funding from the US and Japan.  After the 2005 bloody unrest in the eastern town of Andijan, the Uzbek government closed hundreds of NGOs with foreign funding and Mukhtarov's was one of them. He had to register as a business which was a bit of a blessing in disguise because it gave him more freedom to do what he wanted.  Of course, the flipside was that he now had to fully fund his efforts.

Then, there was the annual challenge of securing raw materials.  Early on, Mukhtarov would have to apply every year for a government issued permit to buy mulberry branches from a farmer because mulberry trees are vital for silkworms and are therefore controlled by the Uzbek state. Applying for a permit did not guarantee that Mukhtarov would get a permit.  That was a persistent problem.  But that did not deter Mukhtarov; he now grows his own trees on leased land.  The man is tenacious!  He has a crystal clear vision of what he wants to do and he does not let anything stop in his way!

Polishing the paper.  (Photo from Dispatch News Desk International)
The process to make paper is pretty straightforward but there are at least two steps that distinguish Mukhtarov's process.  First off, the mulberry branches are only cut from the onset of the first frost. I've not been able to find out why. Perhaps after a full season of growth, the fibers are stronger.  Samarkand paper is known for its durability.  I will get the real answer when I visit the workshop.  A bit of triva -  Mukhtarov's paper is mouse proof as mice cannot digest mulberry bark...in case you have your paper where it can be reached by a hungry mouse :-)

Secondly, the paper is actually polished.  After the pulp is laid out on the frames, pressed to form the sheet of paper and the sheet dried, it is then polished - first with a piece of stone and then with a large cowrie shell.  Mukhtarov believes the polishing stage was introduced by Samarkand craftsmen.  Chinese paper was rough and that was acceptable as people wrote with a brush. In Central Asia, writing was done using a feather and therefore, a smoother paper was required.

In addition to producing sheets of handmade paper, the artisans in Mukhtarov's workshop also create other paper based items including notepads, wallets, masks, greeting cards, bags, shopping bags and diaries from mulberry paper, masks, puppets, dolls and even Uzbek costumes with traditional embroidery.  I think the dolls are absolutely charming and well, one or more of them might just make their way in to my suitcase. :-)

Items for purchase in Zarif Mukhtarov's workshop.  Photo from Image from International Caravan Travel Service)

I close with a bit of trivia. The word "ream" as in a ream of paper comes from the Arabic word *rizmah* which means a bale or a bundle.  As the historic trail of paper moved from east to west,  the name of a bundle of paper morphed accordingly.  The Spanish turned *rizmah*   into *resma* and the French made *reyme* of it.  By the time paper made it to England, the word became *ream*.  It was the English that set the page count of a ream as follows - a  ream is made up of 20 quires and a quire is 25 sheets of paper.  Therefore, a ream is 500 sheets of paper.