By Heidi Trautmann
The story of silk sounds like a fairytale. Silk was first produced in China and a legend gives the title “Goddess of Silk” to Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor, who was said to have ruled China in about 3000 BC. Its ways of production were kept secret until the seal of secrecy was broken by a monk, history says, who smuggled it out of the country and sold or gave it to a Westerner who brought it to the royal courts in Europe.
Silk found its entrance into society also in Byzantine times and thus came to Cyprus. The centre of Cypriot silk production was to be found in the area of Lapta and Alsançak where the climate was favourable for the mulberry tree. I have one in our garden not far away from Alsançak and whenever I pick a fruit I remember its fantastic history.
The other day I passed at the Botanical Garden “Green Heights” in our village to show it to friends; the place is owned by Mr. Eminağa, a passionate gardener with a magic green touch, many of my readers will have spent some peaceful hours at that place, admiring the lush green atmosphere established and cared for by a group of gardeners.
Going through the most beautiful rose garden I have ever seen we were asked by Mr. Mustafa Eminağa to come and see a new passion of his; he led us into a big room where on big tables a colony of silk worms were munching away mulberry leaves. I would not believe my eyes. Mr Eminağa smilingly explained to me: “My mother used to produce silk in her house and now I have engaged a knowledgeable person to do it here. First the silk moth lays the eggs which develop into these worms producing the silk thread to enclose themselves into a cocoon where they develop in a motionless state into a moth. If the moth is allowed to live, it will drill a hole in the cocoon and escape and the circle will begin again. But for the production of silk, the cocoon must not be destroyed and the moth will be softly killed just before it is to leave its secure housing using water steam. A cocoon has about 300 to 900 metres of fibre which is carefully undone and wound around a spindle. About 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons are required to make one pound of silk.”
Amazing. What an undertaking. Mr. Eminağa continues: “Silk production started to become an important industry in the times of the Lusignans and it was exported to Europe to be used in churches and at court. But it also represented an important part in Cypriot culture: a young woman would have her bridal chest full of silk woven sheets, blouses, kerchiefs and bands. The nuptial bed was covered with her silk sheets and she made the present of a silk shirt to her financé; when they were to be engaged they would use silk bands to tie the bond and it would be kept at the bottom of the bridal chest in order to use the magic of it to prevent their quarrelling.”
In the old days most of the households owned their own ‘silk industry’, I am told. After 1960 people left the silk production to die, i.e. they cut down the mulberry trees for a hopefully better profit by planting orange trees. Mr. Eminağa wants to bring back to life this extraordinary Cypriot culture to make it visible to people, to learn from it just as he entertains a small zoo in his botanical garden frequently visited by school classes. Or should he wish to make his own silk shirts and nuptial sheets? I did not ask him this question.