When I first came across the term ‘Silk Paper” in one of the many museums at Khiva, I was intrigued as to what it was.
Was silk paper a special kind of silk that looked and felt like paper? Or was it the other way around where paper felt and looked like silk? Or was the term used to refer to the silk money of Khorezm? The answer, I found out later, lay somewhere between all this and a little beyond.
While in Samarqand, I took a break from visiting the many monuments there to go see a silk paper factory in a village called Konigil. Located about 10 km from Samarqand on the picturesque banks of the River Siab, the Meros Silk Paper Factory is a family-run unit that has been in operation for about 12 years. During my visit there, not only did I get to know what silk paper was all about, I also saw the process that went into producing them, and got the opportunity to pick up some souvenirs !
Technology for making silk paper came to Samarqand via the Great Silk Road from China around the 7th or 8th century CE. The original silk paper was made from silk fibres, but today it is made from the bark of mulberry trees — the very trees that feed silkworms from whose cocoons silk is extracted.
Silk paper is highly prized for two qualities and is, therefore, quite valuable — it is waterproof and insect resistant. Moths, silver fish and all other paper-loving insects give the silk paper a wide berth for they can’t digest it. And it is for this reason that silk paper has been the choice for printing or writing the Holy Qur’an since the 8th century CE. Silk paper is also supposed to have a long shelf life (1000+ years) as compared to regular paper (200+ years). Silk paper from Samarqand became a prized commodity and was exported to other Islāmic kingdoms in the region and beyond, especially between the 9th-11th centuries CE.
But somewhere along the way, this traditional paper-making process faded away and disappeared till it was revived as part of UNESCO’s Silk Road Project a couple of decades back. Silk paper is one of the many traditional crafts that are being supported by the project. Thanks to UNESCO’s efforts, there has been revived production of traditional silk paper in Samarqand, and the Meros Silk Paper Factory is one of the organisations that is part of this revival.
The day I visited the Meros Factory was the third day of Qurban Hayit or Bakri Id and a public holiday. Technically, the factory was closed but the family, who run the factory and live on the premises were happy to show me around. They also demonstrated the entire process that went into making silk paper, which begins with strips of mulberry bark being soaked in the waters of the Siab river. According to Meros, the clayey waters of the Siab add a special something to the mulberry bark and in the ultimate production of silk paper !
Pre-soaked mulberry bark is stripped clean and cut into smaller pieces. Please click on the short video to see how that is done.
The stripped and cut bark is boiled in the waters of the Siab river till soft.
The boiled pulp is then mashed into a fine paste in a wooden pestle and mortar, which is powered by a traditional water wheel. Click here to see how the water wheel works.
The pulp is then mixed with a binding solution and allowed to settle. And then it is a process of stir, dip the screen in the solution, remove it, let the water drain, place it between sheets of paper, cover with a slatted wooden board, place a stone weight on the paper pile, and then put it on a wall board to dry ! Click on the slide show below to see the full process !
Now comes the part of polishing the dried and rough silk paper. There are three stages of polishing with a shell, a piece of agate and finally onyx.
It is the polishing, which is done by hand, that determines the quality of the silk paper. The finer and shinier the silk paper, the more expensive it is. The best of the silk paper is exported or is purchased by museums and galleries for restoration work of old manuscripts. What is sold in souvenir shops, though very good, is not the best. The shop at Meros had stationery items as well as cute paper dolls, masks, bookmarks, etc. and I went a little berserk and bought quite a bit as gifts for friends and family. 🙂
When I was relating to a friend about the trip to the Meros Silk Paper Factory, he remarked rather condescendingly that it sounded very touristy. I replied that perhaps it was, and would have been even more so, if it had been a working day with tourists crawling all over the place. But there are two things to be considered here.
One, I was a tourist there (yeah sure, I can call myself a traveller, but for the locals I would remain a tourist) and therefore it was perfectly normal for me to do touristy things. 😛
Two, and more importantly, this was my small way of supporting an ancient craft and the local economy as well. For me, no trip is complete without bringing back something that has been sourced and made locally. It is my way of saying thank you to a place for hosting me and for sharing their local culture with me.
Thank you, Meros for enlightening me with all things silk paper and for sharing a piece of your history with me. 🙂
My Dream Trip Uzbekistan Series:
Dear Uzbekistan | A city called Nukus | Art in the Desert: The Savitsky Collection at Nukus | Mizdahkan: A city for the dead | 3 forts & a dakhma | Itchan Kala of Khiva | There’s something about Bukhara! | Monumental Bukhara | The Jewish Heritage of Bukhara | Shakhrisabz: The home town of Amir Timur | The Registan Square of Samarqand | The blue city of Samarqand | The silk paper factory at Konigil | The surprise & delight that was Tashkent | Uzbekistan: The food & markets special | The Uzbekistan trip planner |