Water power at Samarakand

The History of Samarkand Paper

From China to Samarkand

In the previous blog about the oriental origin of paper, I mentioned Samarkand and how paper spread from China along the Silk Road.  A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to visit a traditional papermaking workshop in Uzbekistan, where the fabled city of Samarkand is located.  Samarkand was the first city in the medieval Islamic world to manufacture paper and remained associated with the finest quality paper until industrial mills took over in the modern age.  The original Chinese paper was made from silk fibres, but in Samarkand other fibres from recycled rags, hemp and mulberry branches were also introduced into the mix. The use of wood pulp, mostly pine, replaced many of these methods around the world towards the end of the 19th Century to meet the demands of an industrialised society.

Rediscovering a lost craft

Smarakand Despite Samarkand’s long association with paper the craft of the paper-maker, like so many other traditional crafts around the globe, died out during the 20th century and had to be rediscovered. After a few years of research and experimentation a small workshop using traditional methods was re-established outside of Samarkand in 2001. Using green mulberry twigs and young branches they now again produce what they believe is the quality of paper the city was famous for. Unlike the paper that was produced in China, which was comparatively rough, the Samarkand product had a glossy smooth finish. For the Chinese who used a brush to write this was not a problem, but for the Central Asians, Persians and Arabs who used a reed pen a smooth surface was necessary. The smooth surface also required less ink and the new paper was robust enough that it could be written on both sides, making it economical as well as aesthetically pleasing. It also had the advantage over other writing materials in that it could be easily dyed to suit the mood of what was being transcribed on it, blue for mourning and sombre decrees, red and yellow for celebrations and marbled paper for the backings of the Diwans (collections) of verse so admired in courtly circles.

The process of Samarkand paper

The first stage is to cut the mulberry sticks into long strips and boil them for five hours to soften the fibres. This takes place in a huge iron pot over a hearth that was toasty warm on a snowy Samarkand winter’s day, but I can also imagine that it would not be quite so pleasant in a blazing Central Asian summer. Mulberry trees are also essential for Uzbekistan’s most famous traditional industry, silk production. The narrow of strips dividing fields from each other and roads around the city play host to carefully cultivated mulberry trees, some centuries old, which feed the silk worms and the locals, give raw material to the papermakers. When they are pruned in the autumn they are used as fuel for the small tandoor ovens which are in the courtyard of every traditional Uzbek house.Paper Making in Samarakand

The softened strips are removed from pot and placed in deep clay lined holes in the floor where they are pounded into pulp by a large water powered wooden trip hammer. The rhythmic pounding of the water powered trip hammers came as a complete revelation to me. I was aware of water powered mills being used in Europe and elsewhere, but I had never seen one in action and the amount of work that was being produced via this one small stream had me entranced.  According to my guide Samarkand originally had over 400 water powered mills, which in a predominantly desert environment is not something I had even considered.

After being pulped the fibres are mixed with water in a large vat and the papermaker simply lowers a framed, fine bamboo mesh screen into the soupy mixture scooping up a mass of mixed fibres. The water drains away and the sheet is removed, pressed, and set to dry.

The final stage is what made the Samarkand paper famous, it is hand polished. This gives it the silky smooth texture for which it was famous and made it incredibly durable. The polisher places each sheet on a slab of smooth marble and burnishes the paper smooth using a large polished conch shell and quite a bit or muscle power. Large agates were also used for polishing but this paper maker explained that he preferred the shell as the curl made for a good hand grip.

Needless to say we purchased a small stock of the remarkable Samarkand paper, I just wonder if I shall ever write anything worthy of putting on them!

Join us for Kids Dig It! Oriental Family fun week as we get stuck into a papermaking workshop.  We can’t guarantee the finished product will be Smarakand quality, we can guarantee you’ll have fun in the process!  Get your tickets here:

Blog by Damien Fegan