When traveling the modern-day Silk Road, you’ll discover stunning textiles, master craftsmen, and techniques dating back to the 10th century.
Fergana is a lush valley in Eastern Uzbekistan, wedged between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. When Babur, a descendent of Genghis Khan and founder of the Moghul Empire in India, was asked what he missed most about his homeland of Fergana, the answer was: “The melons.” Pomegranate and apple trees grow wild here, and the markets are piled high with, indeed, the sweetest melons I have ever tasted. But Fergana has always been known for more than its fruit; the mulberry tree is actually the source of what made this green valley so famous…
Silkworms and the mulberry trees off which they feed are indigenous to China. The Han Dynasty, credited with developing sericulture (silk farming), closely guarded the secrets of silk—they even declared smuggling silkworms out of the country to be a crime punishable by death. The story goes, however, that silk reached Central Asia courtesy of a Chinese princess in 440 A.D., who secreted silkworms out of China in her hairpiece for the love of a prince.
In the month of Ramzan of the year 889 (June 1494) and in the 12th year of my age, I became ruler of the country of Fergana.
Today, Uzbekistan is the third biggest exporter of silk in the world. I traveled there on the hunt for silk ikat, a textile whose silk threads are dyed before weaving. The process gives the fabric a pixelated look, which earned the cloth the Persian name *abr,*or “clouds.” The weavers were called *abr-band,*or “cloud-tiers.”
Silk was not the only commodity traded on the Silk Road; ceramics were also a coveted commodity that eventually made their way from China into Central Asia. Not far from Margilon in Fergana Valley is Rishtan, a town famous for its impurity-free clay and a blue glaze called ishkor.
Rishtan is one of the oldest ceramic centers in Central Asia, dating back to the 10th century. Today, potters make up a tenth of this little town’s population. During my visit, I stopped by master ceramist Rustam Usmanov’s studio in a courtyard filled with fruit trees and shaded by a canopy of grapes.
Rustam, his son Damier, and his nephew Ruslan took me through the process of making a ceramic plate. First, a plate or bowl is shaped on a potter’s wheel. After “throwing” the plate, it is dipped in a white clay mixture called angupand then dried at room temperature for four days before being fired in a traditional kiln. It is then painted (one plate takes between 25-40 hours) and glazed using the traditional ishkorglaze, made from a plant of the same name that Rishtan is famous for.