Fruits of the loom: picking up the threads of an ancient story

Cover Chris Alexander recounts his efforts to establish a self-sufficient carpet workshop in Uzbekistan, transforming the lives of a community and reviving the lost arts of the Silk Road.

The author of an evocative new book A Carpet Ride To Khiva, Chris Alexander recounts his efforts to establish a self-sufficient carpet workshop in Uzbekistan, transforming the lives of a community and reviving the lost arts and forgotten traditions of the Silk Road. When I first told friends and relatives that I planned to leave England and move to Uzbekistan, people would either look blank, or assume that I'd said Pakistan or Afghanistan. The whole of Central Asia is a part of the world you don't see in global weather reports. It's usually stuck behind the presenter's head. It's a region beached by history somewhere between the Prophet Mohammed and Marx and continues to be influenced by both Russia and the wider Muslim world; a region that few outsiders know about and even fewer have lived in.

Often Central Asia is described as the Silk Road, which is a far more familiar term. Although there was never one "road" but rather a network of trade routes, and although far more was traded than just silk, it was a term that I found extremely alluring. I didn't know much about the blend of Persian and Turkic peoples or what living conditions would be like. I knew even less of what was in store for me, or that my original two-year commitment to volunteer with Operation Mercy would extend to seven years.

What I did know was that I had been invited by Operation Mercy (a Swedish humanitarian organisation) to work as a volunteer, using my media background, to write and research a guidebook about Khiva - a desert oasis that had once been the capital of the powerful Khiva Khanate, which extended over large swathes of western Central Asia. I had read Captain Burnaby's account of his overland trip to Khiva in 1873; a bestselling book which made Khiva as well known in Britain then, as places such as Kandahar and Helmand are now. His account of his meeting with the Khan and his descriptions of Khiva's walled city fascinated me, and I wasn't disappointed.

My first view of the Ichan Kala - the inner walled city of Khiva - was breathtaking. An enormous sandcastle wall encircled the city like a basking bronze snake, and within it glittered tiled domes, minarets and madrassahs. After my first few months I fulfilled a long-standing dream to live within the walled city, thanks to the generous hospitality of an Uzbek family who rented one of their rooms to me. The view from my balcony was like something out of the Arabian Nights, as Khiva boasts the most homogenous example of Islamic architecture in the world, and has Unesco world heritage status.

There was plenty to research for the guidebook I was writing and I enjoyed living in the community and learning their language and customs. But I found myself drawn to developing ways in which traditional handicraft skills and a ready tourist market could lead to income-generation, as unemployment was so high. At first I worked with some of the wood carvers, helping them to broaden their range and find new markets. I noticed that the women of Khiva were skilled at making flat-weave kilims but that the sizes, colour schemes and patterns were not what foreigners would buy. I began working with a kilim workshop, connecting them with a fair-trade retailer in Britain, and providing new designs and colour schemes for them.

My work came to the attention of Unesco and their director told me about their plans to start a workshop in Khiva, reviving lost traditions such as natural dye-making and silk-carpet weaving from forgotten designs. Soon we were working with the mayor of Khiva to find a suitable location for the carpet workshop, deciding on a disused madrassah (school) in the heart of the Ichan Kala. And so began a continual journey into the unknown for me. I had never overseen the renovation of a madrassah, for a start. There were looms to be purchased or made, and plans for our first designs. My search for 15th-century Timurid carpet designs took me to the Royal Asiatic Society and the British Library, both in London.

The designs we wanted to recreate had died out, and other than a fragment or two, there were no carpets we could copy. Our only source was immaculately detailed miniatures that illuminated 15th-century manuscripts of poetry, history or literature. Many of the outdoor courtly scenes involved shahs, courtiers, mullahs or lovers seated or lying on carpets, which in turn were represented as finely wrought rectangles. Providing enough of the design was visible, and with the aid of a decent magnifying glass, we could then transfer it on to graph-paper and weave it to life once more.

In this way, we recreated about 20 different designs from a unique period in carpet history, preceding the Safavid dynasty, during which many of the classical Persian rug designs we still have today were introduced. I also discovered more about the silk we used for our carpets. The timeless and exhausting process of sericulture - silkworm growing - had continued under Soviet rule, but was now very exploitative. Villages in each collective farm were forced to grow worms and were paid little, if at all, for their efforts.

The origins of silk lay to the east in China. According to legend, the Yellow Empress was enjoying a cup of green tea in her garden, when a cocoon fell into her cup. As she tried to fish it out, it began unravelling and so silk was discovered. The Khorezm oasis, of which Khiva was part, had played a key role in establishing the Silk Road. A Chinese general had been sent to the wild west, hoping to make allies beyond the land of the barbarians, in the hope that they might unite with China in battle. Although unsuccessful in his quest, the general impressed the people of Khorezm with his fine silk clothing, creating curiosity, envy and a whole new export market for this mystery fibre.

Eventually, silk was traded as far as Persia and then the Greek and Roman empires. By the time of Christ, "glass togas" were scandalising Rome, allowing a woman to be clothed and yet appear naked. Unsurprisingly, the price of silk went through the roof, and soon it was worth more than its weight in gold, with much speculation over the "heavenly vegetable" from which silk was produced. The Chinese, quite sensibly, kept the source of silk a secret, keeping its price high and making it worth transporting across the inhospitable mountains and deserts of Central Asia.

Usually, caravans would ply just one part of the route, and caravanserais (roadside inns) sprung up in oases along the way, growing into towns and cities. As the Celestial Empire was connected with the West for the first time, far more than silk was traded. Travelling westward was paper, gunpowder, porcelain, mulberries and rhubarb, while China was introduced to onions, peas, cucumbers, coral, ivory and even asbestos and ostriches.

Nor were commodities the only thing to pass along the caravanserais. Nestorian Christianity spread Eastward through Persia and into Central Asia and China, leading to large Christian communities and even a cathedral in Samarkand. Buddhism, on the decline in India, spread northward and then eastward, finding fertile new grounds in China. A new hybrid art form developed, fusing Buddhist art with classical Greek art.

In modern Uzbekistan, silk is the third largest commodity exported, after cotton and gold. Our workshop was to play a small role in keeping more profits from this luxury fibre within the community. However, not everything we needed for our workshop could be sourced locally. Some of our natural dyes had come from as far afield as India. We made our own vivid yellows from a blend of onion skins, mulberry, vine and apple leaves. For browns we used walnut husks, and for gold, dried pomegranate skins.

The rest of the dyes I would need to find in Afghanistan. Although Uzbekistan shares a border with Afghanistan, and there are plenty of Uzbeks in the north of Afghanistan, the two countries couldn't be more different. Leaving behind the wide streets and flower beds, and the Soviet architecture of Termez for the dusty, unpaved streets full of horse-drawn-carts in Mazar-i-Sharif, two hours away, was like stepping into a different world.

Gone were clean-shaven men in tracksuits, or women wearing long dresses and headscarves. Instead, I was surrounded by long beards, turbans and shalwar kameez, or blue burkas. It was spring 2002 and the retaliation for the September 11 attacks had just begun, liberating people from Taliban rule. Although the Afghan bazaar seemed dirtier and poorer than our bazaars, the choice was far greater, and Afghans were clearly much better at trading. I found the dye section, where cotton sacks openly displayed dried opium poppy heads, on sale for less than a US$1 (Dh3.7)a kilogram.

I was after madder root, which yields salmon pinks and oak galls. Combined they produce vivid reds. We also needed a mysterious substance I knew only by it's Afghan name: zok. This was for creating blacks or dark blues, yet turned out to be a white, chalky substance dug up from the Badakhshan mountains. I managed to drive back across the desert to the Uzbek border with the recently purchased dyes. An Afghan border guard sent his dog to sniff the sacks of dyes, including the sacks of zok which, white and powdery, looked suspiciously like narcotics. Although the dog found no evidence of drugs, the guard told me that I'd still need to have each sack tested in a laboratory. I agreed to this until I discovered that the nearest laboratory was back in Mazar-I Sharif. Inspired, I told the guard about the carpet workshop and that I would never traffic drugs as I am a man of honour.

"Well, if you're a man of honour, then you are free to go. Please proceed" was his response. I'd been given that rare gift in Afghanistan: trust. Although a lot of my work setting up our workshop revolved around the production of carpets, one of our main aims was to create income for the poor. Initially we employed just 14 weavers - two master weavers, three dyers and one master dyer. Over the years we gradually expanded, until every available cell in our madrassah had at least three looms. There are now 70 people employed.

In the beginning, we ensured that each loom had at least one experienced weaver and one or two apprentices. The looms varied in size, but generally three women worked at each. They learnt to use a hook knife to produce a fine Turkic or double knot. The process takes just a few minutes to learn but a lifetime to master, ensuring that the cartouche, or graph-paper design is followed, and that each weaver knots with the same tension. If not, the design will emerge crooked or skewed. Other essential tools for weaving were the beater - a heavy comb used for knocking the horizontal weft thread in place after a completed row of knots - and trimmers. The trimmers looked like scissors, but with protrusions at the end of each blade to allow weavers to squeeze the blades together when trimming each row of knots. I never mastered their usage.

At first, the weavers were a little wary of each other. Only a few had been friends, neighbours or relatives. However, after three months, one of the weavers invited everyone home for her birthday. We enjoyed a huge meal, eaten seated on floor-mattresses called corpuches, around a dasturkhan (tablecloth.) Then the weavers began dancing together, despite the presence of me and the other dyers who were all male. I realised then that we had become something more than just a workshop and that our lives were woven together by something other than just carpets.

Many of the weavers had never earned money before, and being given work also gave them more power at home and more status. Girls previously seen by their parents or in-laws as a financial drain were now extremely useful as our wages were good and paid on time; in itself, highly unusual. It meant that parents were in less of a rush to marry off their daughters, and that when they did, they could find better husbands for them.

Life as a newlywed is tough for women in Khiva. They live with their husband's family and are called gelin, which means "someone who's come in". A good gelin should not speak unless spoken to and should never look directly at her mother or father-in law. Each morning they're up at 5am to sweep the street outside their house, and they're usually the last to bed at night, carrying the heaviest burden of domestic drudgery. Gelins are not supposed to eat much, but should just pick at their food, and it's important that they know their place and feel a strong sense of shame, until they've had their first son.

Despite all this, many of the girls were keen to get married, and usually found that their new mothers-in-law would allow them to continue to work at the workshop, despite the break with tradition, as times were hard and employment rare. At the workshop they could laugh, sing, and enjoy a decent lunch and were not at risk of a beating from their husbands or mothers-in-law. Sometimes, angry in-laws would phone me demanding to know how much a certain weaver had been paid that month, or what their quality bonus was at the end of a carpet. I told them it was none of their business.

We also had a long list of women signing up for work. Many of the younger girls would bring their feistiest grandmother to harangue me into submissions, and a few women even attempted seduction. However, I was unmovable on our "first come, first served" policy, as we worked our way down a list of names. New women were taken on for a two-month trial period, and if they were good, were given a permanent place at the workshop.

After our first nine months, the first carpets were ready to cut from the loom. I was keen that we focus on competitive prices, as all the profits were ploughed back into the workshop and we needed to generate sales. Seeing the first carpets sold was a landmark for the workshop, but sad for me. I'd been so involved in each one and it was hard to see them go. We found a ready market in the tourists who would visit our workshop each day. Many of them wrote in our visitors book that seeing the workshop at work- the vats of dye in the courtyard, rainbow skeins of silk dripping from racks and peering into each cell to watch the weavers work - had brought the Silk Road to life, providing bustle and colour in an otherwise quiet Ichan Kala. The mayor of Khiva referred to our workshop as a "living Silk Road museum".

Sadly, my time there was to end abruptly and unexpectedly. Throughout my time in Uzbekistan, the government had silenced secular political opponenets. But unsure of how to control young men filled with visions of Jihad, they embarked on a policy of "punishing the fathers for the sins of the sons". This policy was particularly severe in the densely populated Ferganah Valley; terrifed men and women would be arrested in the middle of the night and threatened with beatings or rape in front of their sons, unless their sons signed "confessions".

Not only were those suspected of radicalism persecuted, but also pious Muslims, who sought to practice their faith peacefully. As economic conditions worsened due to government corruption and incompetence, more people turned to religion for solace. Finally, in May 2005 in the city of Andijan, the local government arrested a cooperative of Muslim businessmen on the pretence of radicalism, keen to appropriate their assets. Employees of the businessmen, and others tired of corruption began to protest in the main square. As more people joined the protests, which continued for several days, some radical elements among the protesters broke into a jail to free the imprisoned businessmen. The army moved in and opened fire on the protesters. No one knows how many were killed, as the bodies were dumped in mass graves, but estimates vary from 200 to 700.

This had little immediate impact on Khiva, at the other end of the country. However, as the UN called for an international sanctions, and the government realised they couldn't control people's access to foreign media, organisations such as ours became scapegoats. While we appeared to be helping, it was suggested we were part of a Western plot to subvert Uzbekistan and corrupt its people. So, after leaving for a three-week holiday in Azerbaijan, I was told that my application for a new visa had been denied. An appeal was rejected and I was forced to return to England, never having the opportunity to say goodbye to the people who had become like family.

It's unlikely that I'll ever be able to return to Khiva, something particularly hard as I now live in neighbouring Tajikistan; so near yet so far. I'm teaching the herders of the High Pamirs how to comb their yaks to collect the cashmere-soft down they previously threw away. We're then transforming this into luxury hand-knitted garments. A Carpet Ride To Khiva: Seven Years On The Silk Road by Chris Alexander is out now, published by Icon Books. For more information about the Khiva carpet workshop, visit

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