Silk Road arts and crafts: the textiles and ceramics of Central Asia

Papermaking is only one of the many crafts that spread east and west along the 4,000-mile ancient Silk Road trade route.

By Kieran Meeke

Published 5 May 2024

Whether you're in Italy buying some lovely handmade Italian paper, in China admiring beautiful jade ornaments or passing colourful silk carpets in Turkey, you are in the presence of a living reminder of the Silk Road.

It’s impossible to imagine life without paper, whether in books and magazines, or as wallpaper or tissue. Of all the products to have spread along the Silk Road, it may be the most influential.

The technique of making paper from pulp fibres was developed in China perhaps a hundred years before the time of Christ.

Initially seen as a wrapping, paper soon became a replacement for silk in such uses as paintings or maps as it improved in quality.

From China, it spread westward quickly. Buddhist monks travelling back to and from the faith’s spiritual home in India brought paper – and the writings and ideas on it – from China to Central Asia.

Here it was discovered that plant-based fabrics such as cotton or linen made an even better base for it than the bamboo and rattan of China. Polishing the paper with a shell for a smoother surface is also thought to be a local technique.

You can still buy this handmade paper in the markets of Bukhara and Samarkand, which became famous for papermaking throughout the Arab world after Muslim armies reached Central Asia in the early seventh century.

A poem of 1514 by Sultan Ali Mashhadi read:

“The Chinese paper is the best

However much you test it - it’s the best

Yet paper made in Samarkand is so fine

A man of reason won’t decline.”

The spread of paper was intertwined with that of Islam, as it was used for religious writings just as it had been by Buddhists.

But long before that merchants were using paper to send messages to each other along the Silk Road. One such letter in a silk bag addressed 'Bound for Samarkand' was excavated on the Chinese border in 1907, some 2,000 miles away, and dated to 314.

The paper in the bag was even cut into standard-size sheets that would be familiar to anyone loading a printer today.

From Asia, Muslims took paper by the tenth century to Spain, via Syria and Egypt, from where it entered the rest of Europe.

Merchants in Sicily and Italy first used paper around the early 12th century, the root of the modern Italian papermaking craft. Remember that next time you buy a papier-mâché carnival mask in Venice.

Where to buy: Venice, Samarkand, China

Two of the first precious materials to make their way east along the Silk Road were ivory and jade. The carving of ivory has been banned but jade is still commonly found in jewellery in China where it is considered as precious as gold is in the West.

Nephrite jade was first imported to China about 1000 BCE from Khotan in what is now Xinjiang, then an independent kingdom 1,000 miles outside the empire’s border.

The hardest of all stones, it lends itself well to delicate designs but shaping it took particular skill in an era before machinery. Jade is not carved but abraded and the expense of working it made its display a sign of wealth: first material and later, spiritual.

The trade route through Xinjiang can be seen as the first steps on the Silk Road that developed some five centuries later. China’s Yumen Pass, or Jade Gate, is where traders left the protection of the Great Wall on their way to Central Asia.

Jade also made its way west. The largest slab of green jade in the world covers the sarcophagus of Timur the Great in Samarkand. It’s a sign that not only the material – and the secrets of carving it – but also the concept of its spiritual value had made its way along the Silk Road.

Where to buy: China (but bring an expert with you)

We associate pottery with China but the technique of using a potter’s wheel was developed in Mesopotamia around 3,000 BCE, and glazing was also discovered there around the ninth century BCE.

First used for decoration, glazing was applied to pots during the next centuries, being common by the time of Imperial Rome.

Glazed pottery is seen around the same time in China and the silk trade to Rome may well have played a hand in this.

The first Western reference to Chinese porcelain appeared in 851, when an Arab named Suleiman trading in China wrote: "The Chinese have a fine clay of which they make drinking vessels as fine as glass; one can see the liquid contained in them."

These delicate Chinese ceramics were being imported to Iraq by the ninth century. At the same time, Iranian cobalt was carried the other way and used to make the blue-and-white porcelain we think of as quintessentially Chinese.

Before then, green was the predominant colour.

Porcelain depends on a hard clay (kaolin) and high temperatures and China had perfected its making during the Han Dynasty about 200 BCE.

Harder than other pottery, and keeping its bright colours for centuries, it travelled well and spread all along the Silk Road.

Attempts were made to copy porcelain in Central Asia. Kashan in Persia became famous for its lusterware products in Islamic designs from the 11th to the early 14th century.

During the first 50 years of the 17th century, more than three million pieces of Chinese porcelain were imported into Europe.

It was the start of the 1700s before Europeans managed to make it for themselves. But it’s no coincidence this exotic material is still called “china” in Britain.

Where to buy: China, Hong Kong (porcelain). Uzbekistan, Iran, Armenia (pottery).

Silk, whether in clothes, fabrics or in carpets, can be found all along the Silk Road. Iran, which gave us the Persian carpet, is still a notable source of carpets but its fame only dates to the 16th century.

Before that, Central Asia was the source of the finest rugs and Bukhara in Uzbekistan is still famous for a distinctive dark red design.

Tracing the Silk Road even further east, you come to the oasis town of Khotan. It was a crossroads on the route, with connections to India and Tibet as well as between China and the west.

Its carpets reflected these varying influences, with Buddhists motifs merging with later Islamic ones, and Chinese designs merging with Indian ones. During the first millennium, Khotan carpets were considered the world’s best.

Legend says that a Chinese princess given in marriage to a Khotan prince in the first century brought silkworms hidden in her hair as part of her dowry.

From Khotan, silkworm eggs were later smuggled into Iran and then on to Constantinople (later Byzantium, now Istanbul) by 551. Byzantium became famous for silk, where it was an imperial monopoly for centuries.

In 1147, during the Second Crusade, Byzantium was over-run and the secrets of silk production passed to the Italian centres of Lucca and Venice.

The silk trade long predated the discovery of its secrets, however, which may have been discovered in China in 5000 BCE. An Egyptian burial site of 1070 BCE near the Valley of the Kings held a female body dressed in silk.

Silk was taken as a gift by Chinese envoys to Persia and Mesopotamia during the second century BCE. Roman soldiers at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE were said to have cracked at the eerie sight of the shimmering silk banners carried by Parthian troops.

The Roman fascination for this strange fabric led to its adoption by the nobility, which surviving records show was worth its weight in gold by 270.

Where to buy: Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan (silk carpets), China (silk).

The rough wool from sheep raised on the steppes of Central Asia lent itself well to the felting process, as the short fibres were difficult to manipulate using other methods.

Harsh winters gave felt many uses, from hats, coats and saddle blankets to carpets and yurt covering.

The wide areas over which nomads ranged left them open to many influences, and nomad herders carried as few things as possible, so care was lavished on what they had, giving rise to the colours, intricate designs and embroidery of the region’s feltwork.

This folk art is one of the strongest connections you can trace along the Silk Road. The traditional kalpak felt hat worn in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Western China has designs that reflect Islamic, Buddhist and more ancient origins.

Felt rugs in Kazakhstan bear designs copying those of Chinese or Persian carpets.

Felt embroidery in the region has been heavily influenced by Russia during the Soviet era. In 2012 Unesco recognised Kyrgyz felt art as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Such recognition is helping to bring back older designs often preserved as family heirlooms or in museum collections. It’s a history you can also help keep alive when you buy a Kazakh felt rug.

Where to buy: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Georgia.

Discover the Silk Road for yourself on a holiday to Central Asia.

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