Zarif Mukhtarov’s dream came true. He is standing in front of his workshop in the village of Koni Ghil, 5km from the Uzbek city ofSamarkand. His eyes shine with pride as he tells his story. Mukhtarov, 58, had tried for years to discover the lost art of Samarkand paper-making. Today, visitors to one of the only workshops for handmade paper in Central Asia can learn the secrets of a 1,000-year-old production process.
Samarkand paper was renowned for its quality. Many Persian and Arabic manuscripts of the ninth and 10th centuries were written on it. “The world’s best paper is produced in Samarkand,” wrote Babur, a descendant of the Central Asian ruler Tamerlane and founder of theMughal dynasty in India in the 16th century.
It was betrayal that brought the paper-making craft to Samarkand. In the year 751 the Chinese invaded Central Asia, but the ruler of Samarkanddefeated their troops and captured many thousands of soldiers. To save their lives, the story goes, craftsmen among the captives revealed their knowledge of paper-making to their captors. From then on, Samarkand became a centre for paper production. But following Russian colonisation of the Silk Road city in the 19th century and the start of industrial production, the ancient recipe got lost.
In 1995 Mukhtarov, a professional ceramist, took part in a UN conference dedicated to lost culture in Uzbekistan. Samarkand paper was one of the topics, and he started to dream of rediscovering how to make it. After five years of experiments with cotton, rag waste and flax, Mukhtarov became convinced that the best paper was made from the bark of the mulberry tree, which grows all over Samarkand.
In 2001 he started to build his own paper workshop. Some funding was provided by US and Japanese foundations, but most of the money was invested by Mukhtarov himself.
“At first my friends thought I was insane,” he recalls. “My wife scolded me regularly. We had to [save enough money to] marry both our children and I kept borrowing money for the workshop. At the end, I had to sell our car and my wife’s gold jewellery to finish the construction.”
Today the paper workshop is a must-see site for tourists coming to Uzbekistan. Mukhtarov has no website and does not advertise. Yet, each year some 5,000 visitors seek out his picturesque mud-brick workshop with a chattering wooden watermill by the Siyob river. The location was no coincidence; once, there were 400 watermills around Samarkand, many of them in Koni Ghil, Mukhtarov says.
Visitors find a variety of products: silk-like or hairy paper in cream, blue, yellow or pink; notepads and wallets; even puppets and masks. All of them are made of paper. Mukhtarov’s workers even produce Uzbek costumes with traditional embroidery. . . . .