“Anyone thinking of writing should be advised that the best paper for calligraphy is produced in Damascus, Baghdad or Samarkand.” This is not a modern-day sales pitch but an excerpt from a 15th-century work by Simi Nishapuri, a librarian from Mashad in Iran, who records the advice of a bibliophile. Peter Frankopan quotes this in his literary tome The Silk Roads: A New History of the World .
Uzbekistan was at the centre of the Silk Road and caravans passing through its cities and towns left behind a rich cultural heritage. Uzbeks mastered a variety of crafts — from pottery to papermaking, delicate embroidery to silk weaving — to an extent that inspired lyrical admiration.
Forty-five km from Bukhara, in the town of G’ijduvon (G’ijduvan) sixth-generation ceramicist Alisher Narzullaev works his magic on the potter’s wheel. His son Olimjon shows me around the workshop where the distinctive dark green or brown glazed ceramics are created. “Every piece is hand-painted using natural colours, glazed and fired at 1,000°C,” explains Olimjon. In the showroom, which is choc-a-bloc with cups, bowls, plates, jugs and other items, I pick up a green espresso cup with a delicate tendril pattern.
Further east, the sleepy town of Rishton (Rishtan) in Fergana Valley is the region’s oldest ceramic centre, dating back to the seventh century. I visit the workshop of Rustam Usmanov, probably the most well-known ceramicist in town. Unlike G’ijduvon pottery, the Rishton variety is fired twice — once to set the clay and then to bring out the colours. I watch Usmanov’s nephew Ruslan bend over a large plate, making intricate designs in black paint. “We use traditional Islamic patterns, mostly floral and geometric. After the second firing these greys and blacks change to cobalt, green, and rust-brown,” he explains.
Rock, paper, scissors
In the village of Konigil, 10 km from Samarkand, I visit the Meros Paper Mill set up by the Mukhtarov brothers to revive an ancient art of papermaking. “Mulberry bark is scraped, cleaned and boiled. It is then beaten into a mushy pulp, which is then placed in a tub with water and pressed,” explains my guide Khurshid Turgunov. The pressed paper is dried and then polished with granite to get a smooth, pale yellow paper that is remarkably resilient and also long lasting.
In Bukhara, on the way to the Kalyan (Kalon) Minaret, I stop by at Shokir Kamalov’s smithy, where the fifth-generation blacksmith makes a range of knives, scissors, and other metal items. But the most interesting of them are the ‘bird scissors’ — small, elegantly curved, with blades in the shape of a stork’s beak. These are used for making decorative paper-cut patterns and gold embroidery.
Spinning a yarn
The mulberry-lined roads of Fergana Valley lead to Margilan, an important silk-weaving centre on the Silk Road. I get a tour of the Yodgorlik Silk Factory, the largest traditional unit in Uzbekistan, where everything is done by hand — from spinning, dyeing to weaving colourful ikat fabric. In the spinning room, a vat of hot water contains hundreds of cocoons, their fine silk threads feeding into a spinning wheel. “One cocoon yields about 2,000 metres of thread. The silk is softened by washing, and then dyed with natural colours. Scotch tape is used to wrap bundles of yarn and create the ikat pattern,” explains Turgunov. In another room, a dozen women are seated at individual looms, weaving the yarn into cloth, with the continuous clack-clack of the pedals as accompaniment. “The looms have two, four or eight pedals depending on the complexity of weaving,” says Turgunov. I watch in rapt attention as one weaver uses an eight-pedal loom, her feet rhythmically tapping the pedals in a complicated ‘dance of ikat’.
In Bukhara, I encounter another textile craft called suzani , which means embroidery or needlework. It is usually made on a cotton base with silk threads of vibrant colours. Traditionally, a suzani bed sheet is part of a bride’s trousseau, and is often made by the women of her family. The pomegranate, the most common motif for suzani embroidery, symbolises fertility and prosperity for newlyweds. The craft dates back to Timur’s time, based on detailed descriptions that survive from the 15th century. You can pick up exquisite suzani from the markets of Bukhara; the showroom in Hunarmand complex near Lyab-i Hauz is a good option.
Prachi Joshi is a Mumbai-based travel and food writer