Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) is a plant that grows along the shores and marshes of the Nile River and Lake Victoria, what the King James Bible calls bulrushes. The Ancient Egyptians took the soft inside of the reed and used it to make rope, baskets, boats, sails, shoes and, most famous of all, paper. The English word “paper” comes from papyrus by way of Greek, Latin and Norman French.
Pliny, a Roman writing in the time of the empire, said of papyrus:
“our civilization – or at any rate our written records – depends especially on the use of paper.”
A lost art: Our only full description of how to make paper from papyrus comes from Pliny himself: two layers of strips were pressed together crosswise and then dried in the sun. But that gives you a paper that is stiffer and rougher than what the Ancient Egyptians made. Pliny admitted he did not know all the tricks behind it.
Grades: There were nine grades of papyrus, from hieratica, the best stuff that Egypt kept for itself, all the way down to emporetica, used by shopkeepers to wrap goods. The stuff you can buy in Egypt today would be emporetica at best.
Long-lasting: Papyrus can last thousands of years in the deserts and caves of Egypt and Israel and hundreds of years in Greece. Its great enemy is mould.
Washable: Papyrus can be reused by washing off the ink!
Prices: A roll cost two debens in the time of King Tut, the same as four ducks or 3 grams of silver.
Export market: Egypt invented paper in -3000 but did not start selling it to other countries till -1100, first to Phoenicia and then, a few hundred years later, to Greece. Its use was spread by the alphabet – and later killed off by cheaper Chinese paper, which arrived in Egypt about the year 900, the stuff we still use in 2017.
Parchment: But even before Chinese paper, papyrus was being edged out by parchment: it was smoother and thinner and could be made anywhere from animals skins. The story goes that parchment was invented in Pergamum (now Bergama, Turkey) when Egypt cut off its papyrus supply in the -100s to stop its library from outshining its own at Alexandria. There is some truth to it: the word parchment does come from Pergamum – and Egypt did keep tight control of the papyrus trade (though some was made in Sicily).
Scrolls: Sheets of papyrus were joined together to make a roll or scroll. Scrolls were generally about 20 sheets long and could hold the equal of 25,000 English words, give or take. Each of the gospels is about a scroll long. The eight “books” that make up the history of Thucydides were eight scrolls (kept together in a basket). Back then a book and a scroll were the same thing.
Rise and fall: In Ancient Egypt, papyrus was seen growing everywhere in the Delta. By the 1900s it had almost died out in Egypt, kept alive only by tourism.
– Abagond, 2017.
- Chinese inventions