Just outside Samarkand, in the village of Konigil, is a traditional paper factory which has revived the paper making techniques used in Samarkand since ancient times. When we visited the factory as a bonus tour after a long day trip to Shakrizab, our driver generously offered the detour since we were ahead of schedule. The park like atmosphere of the mill, babbling brook, and a fresh pots of tea made for a relaxing and memorable experience normally reserved for larger group tours. Not as cliche as the carpet factory tour, the ancient methods still utilized at the Meros Paper Mill make this a truly unique experience.
The technique is completely manual, with only the assistance of water providing the energy to turn the factory’s mill wheel. The thinnest sprouts of Central Asian mulberry bark is used as the raw material, which is cleaned, boiled for several hours, and then mechanically mashed by log plungers connected to the wheel. Once the pulp reaches the required consistency, it is filtered, and then spread out onto mesh screens, pressed, and allowed to dry. The process takes about a day thanks to the dry climate of Uzbekistan, where craftsmen are able to crank out large quantities of custom made paper according to demand. In order to give the paper its polished silky look and feel, the factory polishes each sheet of handmade paper with granite and bone on a large granite slab countertop. This finishing touch makes the paper exceptionally smooth to the touch, and perfect for taking ink when writing without bleeding into the grain.
The unique process is imported from China, brought to Samarkand thanks to the capture of 20,000 Chinese soldiers, some of whom were artisans, after a failed invasion of Kyrgyzstan in July 751. To avoid being executed, the artisans revealed their paper making technique to ruler of Samarkand, Abu Moslem. The art form was passed to local artisans, and the technique has been in use ever since. So renowned was the quality of the paper being produced here that throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, most Persian and Arab manuscripts were printed on Samarkand paper. The manufacturing technique lasted for nearly 1,000 years, until an invasion and subsequent destruction of the factories in the 19th century ended the art of paper production here until only recently.
The process used at the Meros Paper Mill is totally natural and organic. The paper is not treated with any special chemicals or bleached, and as a result maintains the natural yellowish color of the mulberry tree bark. The factory also uses traditional dyes to offer paper in several different colors. Because the paper is not treated by caustic chemicals like bleach which over time cause mass produced white paper to degrade and decompose, Samarkand paper made using these traditional techniques can last as long as 400 years, making it ideal for heirloom letters, certificates, deeds, and other important archival documents.
In addition to making paper for writing, stationary, and archival purposes, local artisans also use the paper for a variety of other products. Paper wallets, woven placemats, picture frames, hats, purses, and even dolls can be purchased from the shop which of course can be found at the end of the guided tour.
Because the factory is located on the outskirts of Samarkand, it makes an ideal excursion late in the day, or on the way back into town from further afield. When arranged through a tour company, the mill we be more lively, but obviously might feel more touristy. On your own, in a private taxi, the experience will feel more authentic. It is worth remembering that despite its appeal as a tourist attraction, the Meros Paper Mill is preserving traditional production methods that would otherwise be lost, thus preserving an important piece of Uzbekistan’s unique cultural heritage.