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An employee works in Zarif Mukhtarov"s paper mill in the village of Koni Ghil, outside the Silk Road city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

KONI GHIL, Uzbekistan-The passage of time seems to have slowed down at Zarif Mukhtarov"s paper mill in a village not far from Uzbekistan"s Silk Road city of Samarkand.

Here in the countryside, where rulers of the Timurid Empire once sought a verdant sanctuary from their bustling capital, geese sidle by in pairs and tourists feast on pilau made with local rice from clayrich soil.

Mukhtarov, a 62-year-old Samarkand native, was a potter like his father before he set about reviving a papermaking technique coveted for centuries by much of the known world.

Nowadays, he says, the legendary paper once produced in Samarkand has been consigned to history by the bland, white, industrial-made stuff and, of course, computers.

But that doesn"t stop thousands of guests arriving at his door every year in the village of Koni Ghil, which has become a must-stop on the country"s growing tourist trail.

"Foreign guests come here to learn more about our traditions and our history," said Mukhtarov.

"Local people come here to learn about themselves," he added, as his kite-flying, 8-year-old granddaughter Mekhrubon tore around the workers" yard in a blur of color.

The story of how Samarkand emerged as a global papermaking center is a favorite among historians who study the rise and fall of ancient trade routes linking East Asia and Europe, even if they admit the precise details are hazy.

Production there began some time in the second half of the eighth century during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), after Chinese troops invaded Central Asia but were defeated by forces under the control of Abu Muslim, a general of the Arab Abbasid caliphate.

"Among the Chinese (prisoners) captured were masters in the art of making paper," said Makhmud Nasrullayev, a historian at the University of Samarkand.

More durable

What separated Samarkand"s paper from the Chinese version and saw it gradually displace papyrus across Europe and the Middle East in the coming centuries was its smooth, glossy finish.

This meant that it absorbed less ink and could therefore be used for writing on both sides. The paper produced in Samarkand"s mills was also far more durable than papyrus. Mukhtarov first began building his paper mill in 2001 but it was only two years ago that it fully returned the investments made by his family.

"We had to borrow money from sisters, brothers, cousins. Our relatives sometimes asked: "What do we need this (paper) for? Better to find some other type of work""

Nowadays, nobody questions Mukhtarov"s vision for the family business, but he is not finished there.

One project he is currently planning is a new wooden mill to press oil from walnuts and flaxseed, which will be used in the pilau he serves to visitors.

AFP