What comes to your mind if I mention ‘Egypt’? Pharaohs, Mummies, King Tut, River Nile, Pyramids….and perhaps Papyrus?
With a very rhyming binomial name Cyperus Papyrus, the humble marshy plant simply grew plentifully in the Nile delta. Papyrus was to ancient Egyptians what perhaps the coconut tree is to a Mangalorean – a Kalpavrisksha – a plant whose every part is of some use to humans. This is a picture of papyrus reeds.
Early geographers and naturalists like the Greek Herodotus in 450BC, the Roman Pliny the Elder in 23-29AD, and even French and Italian botanists in the 1500s have mentioned and/or described the papyrus. By the late 1800s it seemed to have disappeared completely from Egypt.
Papyrus was not only used as writing material, its flower was used to adorn gods and goddesses, it was edible and eaten raw or cooked, it was used to make ropes, vessels, baskets and holders as well as boats that were used to ply along the Nile. It was even used as firewood. Papyrus amulets were placed on mummies. It was believed to have medicinal properties too, its ash was a cure for mouth ulcers, eye infections, and known to cause drowsiness.
On a trip to Cairo many many years ago, we took to the children to visit the Pharaonic Village, which by the way still exists and appears to have added on new attractions. The Pharaonic Village is a re-creation of the daily life of ancient Egyptians. A slow boat-ride on the River Nile with English commentary was a good and simple way for the kids to get a sneak peek into Egyptian history. Along the ride you see replicas of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, and have actors enacting scenes from the daily life of ancient Egyptians. The banks of the river are populated with papyrus plants. One man, Dr. Hassan Ragab is credited to bringing cyperus papyrus back to Egypt and showing the world how paper was probably made in ancient times. I say ‘probably’ because despite all the record-keeping that was done using the papyrus, there seemed to be no mention of how papyrus was converted to paper.
First, Dr. Ragab had to re-cultivate the papyrus, which he did at his reseach centre in Giza on the banks of the Nile, just a few kilometres away from central Cairo. After a failed attempt to grow the papyrus from seeds that he brought from Ethiopia and Sudan, he succeeded to grow them from the roots. Much research, many trials and iterations later he managed to make paper like in the ancient times.
The outer green sheath of the reeds would be peeled away and the inner fibrous core would be cut into thin strips no more than 1-1.5 inches in width. The strips would then be placed vertically side by side and another horizontal layer of strips would be placed on top. Next all the water content needed to be dried out. This would be followed by hammering the strips into place and also to smoothen out the uneven surface.
Papyrus remained the most sought after writing material for thousands of years. It may be safe to say that the use of papyrus preceded the usage of palm leaves, silk and hemp as writing material. One can only imagine the happiness the discovery of papyrus must have brought the record keepers who had to otherwise document everything on bulky clay tiles or metal sheets! It was now not only easy to have long scrolls, it was easy to have all the records together, like a book! Even now, archaeological excavations throw up scrolls after scrolls of well preserved records of business, constructions and finance under the various kings and dynasties.
If you have visited Egypt, there is no way you would have returned home without a papyrus themed souvenir 😉 Papyrus souvenirs with pictures of King Tut or Gods or the Pharaohs are available a dime a dozen. I brought home a picture of the Zodiac signs. What did you bring back?
PS: If you wish to read about a rather amusing encounter in Cairo’s famous Khan el Khalili bazaar, click here.