We sat around the breakfast table at Antica B&B spreading Mulberry Jam on our bread and remarked that Mulberry was the theme of the day. We had read about papermaking in Samarkand at home from an article in the Guardian newspaper (2007) and through researching the history of paper that in Samarkand it dated back to 8th century. This is really where the project Cycling the Paper Road began from Silk Road research and reading Dard Hunter’s book on The History of Paper-making. Samarkand was a key goal for us and we were just about to fulfil the objective.
We reached the paper factory/ workshop via private taxi as the centre was 6km out of town and we were 3 (Silvia joined us and she had no bike). The hand painted sign of Meros was pinned against the entrance and a women greeted us. Things had changed since the news article as Meros had adapted for tourists. They had set up a functioning demos and displays ready to be rolled into action when visitors turned up. This was a small scale operation but a genuine one. The workshop was set in a Mulberry wood, with a stream carving its way through the woods. A old water wheel operated the hammers and the general atmosphere was tranquil. In one corner there was a wood mill and a carpenter was making a new water wheel, while at the rear of the woods a women sat on the floor bundling piles of stripped Mulberry branches. Several fires where alight as the vats of Mulberry bark simmered away. A young women sat outside at a table undertaking the bark stripping process by hand and knife. The Mulberry branches would sit in water for several days and then the bark would be finely stripped from the branch and later placed in the vat to be broken down by the fire/heat. The demo then moved inside to show how the water wheel operated the hammer. The bark would then be placed to a bowl like device where the hammer would break down the bark and gradually turn into a fibrous material. This would then be placed into more water and the fine art of creating the paper begins as the young man placed the deckle into the water and produced a thin flat layer of wet fibre. The layer is moved from the deckle onto the pile of other layers spaced in between with thin sheets of a material which prevents the layers to stick together. Under wooden boards and a very large and heavy stone the sheets are pressed to remove excess water and then let to dry on a vertical board. After the paper is dried the finishers goes about burnishing the paper by a shell or stone. This gives the paper a smooth coating, allowing ink work to sit and not bleed. Each sheet takes around 5 mins to burnish.
Meros have been reviving the craft of handmade paper for 18 years and and the workshop produces many artefacts and even clothing made from Mulberry paper. It began through a UNESCO (1995) conference where it was highlighted that there was a need to protect the handcraft and skills within the country. The history of paper-making in Samarkand was pivotal within the region and the Silk Road. Mulberry bark/ paper has a longevity that insects find impossible to destruct. Paper made from mulberry has a yellow hue to it and this is also said to be beneficial in calligraphic work as the contrast is less harsh. Paper making came about here in Samarkand due to several factors: In 751 Chinese soldiers were captured after an invasion into Central Asia. Many of these men were artisans in paper manufacturing and were forced to reveal the art of such fine and ink proof paper-making. Also Samarkand was a key place on the Silk Road so documentation was needed and the transformation of knowledge and religion, came with the use of paper recordings.
Cycling the paper road now considers where next on the paper trail, once we battle the pamir highway and into China (end October). We have ear marked 2 locations in China (but thousands of km apart), so as the journey unfolds we will keep you informed of paper tracing. Until then over to cycling…
All photography by Barbara Salvadori & Jack Blake 2017©