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Egyptian Papyrus Historically


Historical Papyrus

By Jimmy Dunn

The famous Smith medical papyrus


Our English word "paper", is derived from the word "papyrus", an Egyptian word that originally meant "that which belongs to the house" (the bureaucracy of ancient Egypt). At about the same time as the ancient Egyptians moved from prehistory to history by developing a written language, they discovered the need for a medium other than stone to transcribe upon. They found this in their papyrus plant, a triangular reed which symbolized ancient lower Egypt. It was light, strong, thin, durable and easy to carry, and for thousands of years, there was nothing better for the purpose of writing. The earliest extant documented papyrus comes from Egypt's 1st Dynasty, but we believe it may have been used as early as 4,000

A papyrus plant

BC. It's use continued until about the 11th century AD. Besides its use for producing a medium for writing purposes, papyrus was also used for mattresses on beds, for building chairs, tables, and other furniture as well as for mats, baskets, boxes, sandals, utensils, rope and boats. Furthermore, the papyrus root was a source of food, medicine and perfume. Papyrus was, and continues today to be made from the papyrus reed that grows in freshwater marshes along the river Nile, though today this growth is rare and controlled. Technically, it is Cyperus papyrus, a part of the sedge family. The plant grows to a height of about ten feet. After harvesting, the outer fibers are peeled away and the core of the stalk and sliced into very thin strips that are as broad as possible. The best of these strips, from the perspective of quality, comes from the center. Progressively, the

quality of the papyrus strips decline as the strips are taken further from the center of the yellowish-white pith. These

Making papyrus by hand today

strips are next soaked in water to remove the sugar content. Next, the strips are pounded and the water drained away, after which they are placed side by side, overlapping slightly. A second set of strips are placed at right angles to the first, again overlapping slightly. Next, this raw papyrus sheet is pounded once again, and left under a heavy weight (usually a stone slab) to dry for approximately six days. The remaining sugar within this concoction seals the strips together. Finally, after drying the surface of the sheet is polished to a smooth finish by rubbing (for example, with a shell or a piece of smooth ivory). Though during various periods of Egyptian history, this process could be slightly different, some papyrus continues to be made in a similar manner even today, for artistic purposes. For example, Pliny, during the Greek period, describes the process somewhat differently

Egyptian gods on papyrus

and included information on the various grades of Papyrus: For practical purposes, the papyrus was limited to a standard size running 47 cm in length at the most (29-33 cm on the average), and 22 cm in width, though by no means was this always so, particularly over Egypt's long history. For longer documents, these pages were joined to create a papyrus roll (scroll). In fact, papyrus sheets were usually not sold individually, but in rolls (of about 20 sheets), with the fibers running in the same direction, except for the end sheets, which were reversed in order to add stringth. However, in later periods, we also find papyrus books, called codex, which finally triumphed over the roll. Just like there are many different kinds and qualities of paper today, the same was true for papyrus. Each type was used for a different purpose. Very cheaply made coarse papyrus was used by merchants to wrap items. The finest and most expensive varieties were reserved for religious or literary works.

Quality depended upon a number of factors. Where the papyrus plants were grown, the age of the plants, the season when they were harvested, and most importantly, the layer of pith used in manufacture were all factors that affected the quality of the finished product. The finest papyrus was made using the innermost pith layers and was said to have come from the Delta region. A typical roll was usually constructed of papyrus sheets of varying quality. The best sheets would be used for its ends, since they received the most wear and tear, and lesser quality sheets for its inner sections. To add additional strength and help prevent fraying, at the end margins, a strip of papyrus would be glued along the ends of the roll. In some cases, each end of the scroll would be wound around a stick (called an umbicus) which had attached cords to keep the roll from unraveling. The various varieties and sizes of papyrus were often named in honor of emperors or officials. This information, particularly during the Roman and Byzantine periods, was written on the first sheet of a roll and was called a protocol. Additionally, the protocol often included the date and place of manufacture of the papyrus. Generally, the protocol would be cut off before using the roll. However, for legal documents, this practice was forbidden by the Laws of Justinian. The practice of adding a protocol to a finished papyrus roll continued into Islamic times. Usually, the ancient Egyptians and others only wrote on one side of the papyrus, with the sheet oriented so that the fibers ran horizontally (recto). Rarely was there actually graphics applied to papyrus, particularly outside ancient religious matter. Egyptian rulers realizing the importance of Papyrus, made its production a state monopoly, and guarded the secret of Papyrus jealously. Soon, Egyptians were even exporting their papyrus "paper", though outside of Egypt, not much of it has survived. This is due to the climate of Egypt and a few parts of Mesopotamia, where the dry climate is conducive to such preservation. However, Papyri have also been found in Asia and Europe. Few fragments of papyri from the classic period have been found in Greece, though dozens of drawings of rolls and papyri appear on vases of the same period.

Of course, there was a concentration of papyrus in the debris of ancient towns and the necropolises of Egypt. In the external history of the discoveries the most noteworthy feature is that so many of the papyri have been dug up with the spade from Egyptian rubbish-heaps. The fact that so many of the papryi are found among the dust-heaps of ancient cities is a valuable indication of their general significance. The multitude of papyri from theFayoum and a few other locations, do not, as was at first supposed, but simply the everyday trash of ancient civilization. Furthermore, in Egypt, papyrus was recycled in the form of mummy cartonnage. In themummification process, the ancient Egyptians first prepared the corpses and wrapped them in linen. Then they covered the deceased with pieces of cartonnage covered with plaster and painted in bright colors. This cartonnage, at least in certain periods of Egyptian history, consisted of several layers of papyrus usually discarded by administrative offices. Actually, the largest percentage of papyrus that has survived was written during theGreco-Roman Period of Egyptian history and afterwards, from about the late fourth century BC until the middle of the seventh century AD. Most of this text is written in Greek. After the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, almost all administration of Egypt was largely conducted in Greek, and this remained so even after the Romans took control of Egypt. In fact, Greek continued to be used for this administrative purposes even after the Arab conquest in 642 AD. However, there also remains considerable text written

Homer's Iliad on papyrus

Papyrus grove

in Coptic, Latin and Arabic on papyrus as well as some Hieratic and more commonly, Demotic Egyptian. The ancient subject matter recorded on papyrus can be extremely varied, and can include literature, religious texts, magical texts and even instrumental music. Religious topics recorded on Papyrus can include subjects related to ancient religions both in Egypt and outside, as well as biblical, including early Christian text. That biblical literature was originally written on papyrus (rather than on parchment) is evident from archaeological finds and textual analysis. In wadi Murbaat (near the Dead Sea) a papyrus has been found from the 7th century BC, and another one, dating from the 4th century BC, has been found above Jericho. These findings support the scholarly claim that the "books" mentioned in the Bible (Jer 36; 15,16; Ezek 2,8-3,3) were actually written on papyrus. Over 800 scrolls have been found in Qumran (The Dead Sea Scrolls), of which more than 60 (8%) are papyrus scrolls. However, a large body of papyrus documentation exits on administrative matters such as official tax accounts, private documents from tax receipts to letters, court documents and others. In fact, these texts illustrate life in ancient Egypt under Greek and Roman rule in all its aspects, and the study of this body of

Greek text on papyrus

information is called papyrology. The first recorded purchase of papyri by European visitors to Egypt was in 1778. In that year a nameless dealer in antiquities bought from some peasants a papyrus roll of documents from the year 191 - 192 AD., and looked on while they set fire to fifty or so others simply to enjoy the aromatic smoke that was produced. Since that date an enormous quantity of inscribed papyri in all possible languages, of ages varying from a thousand to nearly five thousand years, have been recovered from the magic soil of the ancient seats of civilization in the Nile Valley. From about 1820 to 1840 the museums of Europe acquired quite a respectable number of papyri from Memphis and Letopolis in Middle Egypt, and from This, Panopolis, Thebes (modern Luxor), Hermonthis, Elephantine, and Syene (Aswan) in Upper Egypt. Not many scholars took any notice of them at first, and only a very few read and profited by them. The next decisive event, apart from isolated finds, was the discovery of papyri in the province of El-Fayoum (Middle Egypt) in 1877. To the north of the capital, Medinet el-Fayoum, lay a number of mounds of rubbish and debris, marking the site of the ancient "City of Crocodiles," afterwards called "The City of the Arsinotes," and these now yielded up hundreds and

Arabic text on papyrus

thousands of precious sheets and scraps. Since then there has been a rapid succession of big finds, which have not ceased even yet: we are still in a period of important discoveries. The job of the papyrologist can be considerably difficult. By far, the majority of the some 50,000 papyri published since 1788 (out of an estimated 400,000 preserved in collections around the world) are very fragmentary. Hence, the work of a papyrologist not only involves deciphering, transcribing and editing this material, but also reconstructing very complex puzzles. Most fragments of literature have come from rolls of papyrus, which could extend up to some 35 feet in length. For a while, papyrus actually disappeared from the Egyptian landscape after the invention of paper.

Highly fragmentary papyrus pieced back together

The Egyptian placed an embargo on exporting papyrus at the end of the 7th century AD led the way to parchment, and later on to 'modern' paper, the successor to the papyrus. 'Ground' paper (the predecessor of modern paper) was invented in China in the second century AD, but reached western Asia only after the Muslim conquest of Turkistan in 751 Hence, Arabs introduced a process for making pulp paper, which they learned from Chinese prisoners. Though this new paper was less durable then papyrus, it was also easier and far less expensive to make. Gradually, the Egyptians abandoned the production of {Papyrus paper and neglected the cultivation of their papyrus plantations. Eventually, papyrus itself disappeared from the Egyptian landscape. Papyrus making was not revived until around 1969. An Egyptian scientist named Dr. Hassan Ragab reintroduced the papyrus plant to Egypt from the Sudan and started a papyrus plantation near Cairo on Jacob Island. He also had to research the method of production. Unfortunately, the ancient Egyptians left little evidence about the manufacturing process. There are no extant texts or wall paintings and archaeologists have failed to uncover any manufacturing centers. Most of our knowledge about the actual manufacturing process is derived from its description in Pliny the elder's Natural History and modern experimentation. Dr. Ragab finally figured out how it was done, and now papyrus making is back in Egypt after a very long absence. Notation: Modern Egyptian papyrus art is available in our on-line store for Egypt lovers, the Virtual Khan el-Khalili.

See also:

Tricks of the Trade: Purchasing Fine (modern) Papyrus Artwork

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