PAPYRUS: A BLESSING UPON PHARAOH*
Elaine A. Evans
Fig. 1. Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus L.) Grove in Sicily.
Courtesy of W. V. Davies.
My lecture this afternoon will be a brief introduction to the vital and indispensable flowering fresh-water reed of ancient Egypt called by its scientific name Cyperus papyrus L.(Figure 1.)
It made an extraordinary and historical impact on the Western world. But papyrus paper was not its only use. There were many things made from this most adaptable and extraordinary plant, which grew in great abundance along the banks and in the marshes watered by the great Nile River. As the German Egyptologist Georg Ebers, known for a famous Ebers Papyrus named after him wrote, “It was of the greatest consequence for Egyptian industrial arts that one of the most useful plants the world has ever known grew in every marsh. The papyrus reed was used as a universal material by the Egyptians, like the bamboo or the coco-nut palm by other nations; it was the more useful as it formed a substitute for wood, which was never plentiful.”1
Fig. 2. Gathering of Papyrus. From the Tomb of Piumra, Dynasty XVIII, Thebes
Today, we will explore the botanical characteristics of papyrus and explain its numerous uses in the daily lives of the ancient Egyptians. Papyrus is quite a fun plant and it will amaze you in how many ways it pervaded the lives of the ancients. Papyrus played an important role in keeping their land vigorous and humming with energetic activity. The pharaohs of Egypt were blessed.
Papyrus is one of the most ancient plants known to humankind. Egypt is believed to be its place of origin. The tall, willowy plant predates the Dynastic Period. Thanks to the high level of their cultural development, the ancient Egyptians, so attuned to their natural environment, were able to uncover all of its merits and potentialities for practical useage. Throughout the dynastic periods, papyrus brought nothing but satisfaction and benefits to Pharaoh and his people.
We can visualize more clearly the activity the plant created from tomb wall paintings, which depict ancient papyrus collection and production (Figure 2.). Workers pulled the stalks up from the marshes, tied the stalks in bundles and carried them to the workshops for processing.
Travellers and the Illusive Plant
In early times, visitors from other ancient cultures came to Egypt and were impressed by the luxuriant Cyperus papyrus plant growing so abundantly everywhere. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, circa 450 B.C., papyrus was “plucked from the marshes, the top cut off and turned to other ends, and the lower part…eaten or sold."2. We have an early statement from the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-29), who wrote about the plant growing in the marshes and sluggish waters of the Nile to a height of fifteen feet in Book XIII, 71, of his encyclopedic Natural History.
Fig. 3. Napoleon’s Troops at the Pyramids in 1798.
From La Description de l’Égypte.
The stately, green plant, called djet or tjufi by the ancient Egyptians, played such an important utilitarian role in their daily life, but today, sadly, it has almost disappeared from Egypt. When exactly this happened is not known. But it is believed by some the original plant died out along the Nile River before the time Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Egypt with his troops in 1798 (Figure 3.). The plant is not recorded in Napoleon’s famous French publication of the early 19th century entitled La Description de l’Égypte, which included a section devoted to the flora and fauna of Egypt.
This circumstance led some scholars to believe the plant had disappeared. Controversy began between botanists. Questions were asked, but answers were few in coming.
Early Arab writers such as Ibn Gulgul in A.D.982 had mentioned the plant growing tall in the Nile marshes. Much later, the French naturalist Pierre Belon in 1546-49, noted papyrus in Egypt and later the Italian doctor and botanist Prosper Alpinus in 1580. However, the famous Swedish explorer and botanist Fredrik Hasselquist did not see the plant in his travels of 1749-50. But in his pioneering book of 1790, Select Specimens of Natural History collected in Travels to discover the Source of the Nile in Egypt, Arabia, Abyssinia, and Nubia, the Scottish traveller James Bruce (1730-1794), wrote about the papyrus growing in Egypt and expressed his thoughts about where it came from: “The papyrus seem to me to have early come down from Ethiopia, and to have been used in Upper Egypt….” 3
Fig. 4 Engraving of Papyrus, circa 1790. From J. Bruce, Select Specimens of Natural History…. London 1790.
Some scholars believe the specie growing in Egypt, today, is probably the result of these plants brought from France. However, the botanists Vivi Täckholm and Mohammed Drar, though, claimed in their 1950 book Flora of Egypt that the once believed extinct Cyperus papyrus was redis`covered in Umm Risha Lake in Wadi Natrun. Also, in his 1980 book Le Papyrus, Hassan Ragab, Director of the Papyrus Institute of Cairo, closely analyzed the Wadi Natrun papyrus, which he believes to be the ancient plant, and the same as found in Nubia and the Sudan.
The species Cyperus papyrus is a sub-species from the family Cyperaceae, or sedges, a large family of grasslike plants of probably four thousand species known in various parts of the world. It is a tall flowering freshwater reed, which had at one time grown in great abundance in the marshes along the Nile River. The plant had flourished well in these abundant waters, in the rich, wet and muddy areas, which provided its nourishment. According to W. T. Thiselton-Dyer in 1875:“The reason of its disappearance is probably to be sought, not in any change of climate but in the physical conditions of the river---perhaps the periodical rise and fall of its water—not enabling it to hold its ground without human intervention.” 5 Also, the Delta silted up and around the 12th century B.C. made it a salty swamp. Papyrus, a fresh water plant, was doomed. Much later when paper was produced from material other than papyrus, the plant was no longer necessary to be cultivated and it died out.
Characteristics of Papyrus
The Cyperus papyrus investigated by Hassan Ragab will be a good example to better understand its splendid features. Hassan Ragab received the First Order of the Republic from President Anwar Sadat, in recognition of his important contributions to Egypt and in particular for his work with Egyptian papyrus. A closer look at the Cyperus papyrus will bring into focus a few of its main botanical characteristics. Although Hassan Ragab explains the plant in great detail, only part of its very complicated structure will be highlighted, excluding its intricate cell system.
Fig. 5. The Umbel. From H. Ragab, Le Papyrus. Cairo 1980.
A mature, flowering umbel (Figure 5.) is composed of slim, twig-like, shoots merges from its stalk. The umbel, or whole cluster of spikelet-flowers on their respective, drooping stems, or numerous fine umbelrays, makes the umbel resemble a parasol, or a fan. Each plant has a tall, smooth stalk, which supports the umbel. Stalks reach a height of four meters or more. It is three cornered, robust, sleek, leafless, without knots, tapered in form and thick at the base, where it is surrounded by broad, spear-shaped leaves. The tough leaves are at the base of the stalk. These sheath-like scales differ among the many species of Cyperus. In the case of the Cyperus papyrus, the base leaves are covered by the water of the marsh and are maroon color. (In other species of the Cyperus, the leaves develop to very great heights above the water, but are green color.) They function in sunlight to assimilate chlorophyll and converts carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates. The number of the maroon colored leaves vary from five to nine, with an average of seven. The longest of the leaves is nearest to the stem.
Where do umbels and stalks come from? They emerge from what is called the rhizome, a horizontal, root-like stem that sends out shoots from its lower surface and leafy shoots from its upper surface. When we speak of rhizomes we think of a subterranean root, the first growth of a plant, usually in a horizontal position, often thick and containing the reserves for nourishment. Czech Egyptologist Jaroslav Cerny has described the rhizome as being “… completely submerged in water and mud, but several stems sprang from a single root, often reaching three-six metres in height and ending at the top with flowers.”6
Fig. 6. The Rhizome. From H. Ragab,
Le Papyrus. Cairo 1980.
The illustration (Figure 6.) shows the evolution of a young rhizome as it grows horizontally from an ancient decayed rhizome. The vertical shoots terminate where supports of the tiny roots are developing into aeriated young stems.
The spike is a long flower cluster composed of branching, spike-like buds, which have sprung from their central stalk. The support for the spike grows in a variety of lengths and the buds vary in number on each stalk. Each spike has as many as twelve flowers, which are like husks. They have no calyx nor corolla, i.e., outer base leaves nor inner petals or leaves.
Fig. 7. Development of the Umbel. From H. Ragab, Le Papyrus. Cairo 1980.
There are three stages of development of the umbel (Figure 7.). The stalk-structure opens out from the scale-like, thick pointed leaves of the stem. Tiny, slim spokes, or leaves, emerge from their sheaths to form the fan-like umbel. A spike, or flower cluster, is centered on each of the joins on the slim, drooping stalks.
Of course when we think of ancient Egypt we think of papyrus paper. Egypt was its inventor. Actually we probably think of papyrus as paper when we think of it at all. True, the principle importance of papyrus was as a surface for writing and illustrations. It is still unknown, though, exactly when papyrus was created in Egypt as a writing material. Much about the history of Egypt and the ancient world came down to us as recorded on papyrus paper. We do know it was in use by Dynasty I, circa 3100 B.C., as attested by the hieroglyphic sign of a papyrus roll, which has also been considered the image of a book. Such rolls of papyrus have been found at early sites. In the Dynasty I Tomb of Hemaka a roll of papyrus was discovered, but, alas, it was blank. Small fragments are known from Dynasty V, 2477-2467 B.C., at King Neferirkere’s temple at Abusir near Giza, which are now housed in Cairo, Berlin, and University College, London. So we know it was in production in the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods.
Fig. 8. Papyrus of Kha. Copy by Prof. A. Basile
Precious, papyrus paper has been found in many locations, but mostly in tombs. Probably the earliest example was found during 1903-1920 excavations by the Italian Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli at Deir el Medina at Thebes on a coffin in the tomb of the chief-workman Kha and his wife Merit of the New Kingdom, Dynasty XVIII, 1386-1349 B.C. The 52 ½ feet long papyrus represents the so-called “Book of the Dead,” the original in the Egyptian Museum, Turin, Italy. In 1989, Professor Antonio Basile, Director, Museo Didattico del Libro Antico in Tivoli, Italy, was especially commissioned to create an exact replica of the first meter of the original papyrus for the Egyptian Gallery of the Frank H. McClung Museum, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. A section of the papyrus depicts the deceased Kha and his wife before the great God of the Dead Osiris seated under his canopy in the Afterworld (Figure 8).
Rolls of and documents on papyrus were kept in wooden chests, in jars, or sacred statuary. Chests are often represented standing on the ground in front of scribes. Five, almost complete papyrus rolls from a Dynasty V tomb at Gebelein, were found in a simple, rectangular, wooden box as were the papyri in a tomb behind the great Ramesseum, the Dynasty XIX temple of Ramesses III at Thebes. Although some boxes were labeled, they probably come from a kind of repository of royal personages. There is no evidence regarding the organization of a library in ancient Egypt before the great Museum-Library at Alexandra of the Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 B.C. There were royal administrative archives, where official daybooks, business letters and accounts were stored. Some were called “Place of Documents of Pharaoh” and there were also private repositories.
Much information about the Greek civilization has come down to us through papyri. Egyptian papyrus became the basic writing material for the Greeks. In the Ptolemaic Period, when Greek pharaohs sat on the throne of Egypt, high quality papyrus production and trade was under royal ownership, a monopoly in the control of Pharaoh. It was also a material imported throughout the Near East. Papyrus was mainly used by the literati, for legal papers, and affairs of state.
As C. H. Roberts noted:“Centuries before Alexander’s conquest had made the Greeks the masters of the country, Egypt had manufactured papyrus paper by a carefully guarded processes…. The Egyptians had made of it the finest writing material known…indeed, without such a relatively cheap and convenient material literature and the sciences could scarcely have developed as they did….” 7 Apparently Egypt was able to keep its process a deep secret and maintain its monopoly.
Egypt went on to supply the whole Roman Empire. What a wonderful invention, so light, portable and easy to record information via a reed pen, compared to the “more cumbersome or more expensive writing material, such as stone and metal plates, wooden and clay tablets, or leather.” 8 But, alas, paper made of parchment arrived in the Second Century A.D. and later linen came along from China by way of Baghdad in the Eighth Century A.D. The fragile papyrus paper was no longer in demand.
Luckily, though, many writings on papyrus by the ancient Egyptians did manage to survive, mainly in fragmented form. They are preserved in museums and institutions all over the world. The ancient Egyptians did not leave the method of making papyrus paper, but only wall paintings of its being collected.
Although we have no record of how they produced the paper, modern scientists have experimented with the plant. The following steps are probably quite close to the method used:
Fig. 9. Cast of the Narmer Palette. On loan to the McClung Museum from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Papyrus as a Symbol of Egypt
The plant may have become the symbol of Lower Egypt as early as the fourth millennium BC. The plant is illustrated on one side of the famous Narmer palette of Dynasty I, circa 3100 B.C., a bronze replica of which is on exhibit in the McClung Museum’s Egyptian Gallery. Horus stands over his enemies, the marshland people of Lower Egypt symbolized by papyrus (Figure 9.).
Another early example in relief are the papyrus stalks with round umbels on the well known fragment of an ivory club, now in the Cairo Museum. It depicts King Zer, or Scorpion King of Dynasty I, seated on his throne, with the plant in the background. Among the many fine examples is the relief at the Temple of Abu Simbel, built in Dynasty XIX by Rameses II, of a composite emblem of the twined plant symbolizing Lower Egypt in the “Union” of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Uses for the plant were endless. They show the artistic, inventive and practical character of the ancient Egyptians in utilizing this most important natural resource that surrounded them. Even the Roman naturalist Pliny noted aspects of the plant’s diversity and wrote, “…indeed they plait papyrus to make boats, and they weave sails and matting from the bark and also cloth, blankets and ropes.” 9 For a culture that would not have existed were it not for the Nile River, boats were essential for survival. Egyptian men were the boat makers. They cut down and tied the papyrus stalks and carried them to a place where they could best construct them. There the mature papyrus stems were tightly bound together into an oblong slim shape. A light portable boat was the result. (Figure 10.). These boats were used to collect papyrus as it could navigate marshes. Also papyrus fibres were woven together and occasionally made into sails, or twisted into ropes for the small boats. Small skiffs were made by fishermen as they served well for fishing and laying of traps or drag-nets. The seams of the larger wooden boats were caulked with papyrus and the rigging was made of papyrus fibres. Papyrus was also used for light cabins on boats.
James Bruce commented about additions made to a papyrus boat and its restriction to local use: “The Egyptian ships, at that time (Sesostris I, Middle Kingdom, 1971-1928 B.C.), were all made of reed papyrus, covered with skins or leather, a construction which no people could venture to present to the ocean.” 10 Ships of wood are known as early as the Old Kingdom. Some were as long as 100 feet, probably made of acacia, and some with papryus sails. Some had the stern and port carved in the shape of papyrus (Figure 11.).
Papyrus in the Household
Fig. 12. Woven Box on Stand. From G. Wilkinson, The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians. London 1878.
Peasants as well as the wealthy had many useful items made of papyrus in their dwellings. According to Pliny the stalks were used as wood for fires but also to make utensils and containers. There were boxes, chests, crates and baskets to store goods such as wigs, toiletries, food, writing equipment (Figure 12.).
There were bottle stoppers, balls and needle cases. Among other things papyrus rope was used in webbing for beds, woven floor mats and matting for walls. Papyrus curtains were made as doors that could be rolled up and down. Trays, stools with reed webbing, tables laden with food, and sandals are some of the household objects that were made of papyrus. Also, it was used for jar sealings. Amphora and other pottery vessels containing food and various liquids had the mouths sealed by papyrus. Some seals were woven and sometimes the papyrus was just stuffed in the jar mouth as a safeguard. Strands of papyrus pith were used as ties around documents and letters.
Then there were numerous medical uses as is documented in the Ebers Papyrus and in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, a sample section of which is on exhibit in the McClung Museum’s Egyptian Gallery. Dried papyrus was used for expanding and drying fistulae and as an aid to open an abscess for the application of medicine. Burnt papyrus ash was a caustic remedy. Dioscorides (A.D.78 ) in the lst century A.D. wrote that the ash cures mouth ulcers from spreading. The ash was also used for diseases of the eye and if added to wine it induced sleep. The plant itself with water was known to cure skin calluses.
Papyrus and Food
Papyrus as food was mentioned by Herodotus, who said the annual plant was collected and the lower part eaten. The starch filled rhizomes were consumed raw or roasted and tasted even better after being baked in a red hot oven. The Greek botanist Theophrastus (ca. 370-288 B.C.) claimed it was of greatest use as food. Egyptians chewed the papyrus raw, swallowed the juice and spit out the remains. The Roman historian Diodorus of Sicily wrote, circa 60-30 B.C., that children were served stews along with raw, roasted, boiled, or baked, stalks of the plant. Pliny the Elder tells us that the root was a food for the peasant classes. He also noted that it was used as chewing gum both in the raw and boiled states.
Fig. 13. Bastet Holding a Papyrus Scepter. From G. Wilkinson, The Manners and Customs of the ancient Egypians. London 1878.
Papyrus as Amulets
Amulets were worn suspended from a cord around the neck, as part of a broad collar, or sewn on mummy wrappings. One of the numerous faience amulets was the papyrus amulet, prized for its powers of regeneration, or rebirth as in renewed life. Another type of papyrus amulet was the hypocephalus, a circular piece of new papyrus inscribed with Chapter 162 from the “Book of the Dead.” Symbolic of the sun, the protective disk was placed beneath the head of the mummy to insure the deceased would have abundant warmth in the afterworld as on earth. Goddesses are depicted grasping a papyrus scepter, a long, thin shaft surmounted by a triangular umbel (Figure 13.).
Papyrus for Floral Bouquets and Funeral Garlands
Images painted on tomb walls frequently depict papyrus umbels used in feasts and funeral rites. Guests hold them in their hands at feasts, or praying persons in religious ceremonies. Servants carry papyrus stalks as common offerings to the gods. Papyrus was a precious gift on the altar and on the offering table in the temple. We also see the umbel as an ornament on walls, kisoks, tables, etc. In many tomb paintings there are depictions of “papyrus swathes” bundles of flowers and plant foliage tied around a central bunch of papyrus stalks. The feathery umbels on long stalks were ideal for these composite floral decorations in temples and tombs. It might be noted the stalks were used as a twine for attaching other flowers, the fibres used for stringing the flowers. The pith was shaped into artificial flowers.
Fig. 14. Fowling Scene from the Tomb of Nakht. Copy by Richard Greene of Knoxville.
Papyrus in Paintings and Reliefs
Papyrus is represented in many paintings and temple reliefs as well as an important part of daily life. Among the numerous examples is the papyrus prominently featured in the wall painting of a marsh scene of fowling in the Dynasty XVIII Tomb of Nahkt at Thebes, which was recreated for the Egyptian Gallery of the McClung Museum. (Figure 14).
Also is the fragment in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of a garden scene from from the tomb of Ipuy at Thebes, and in the Cairo Museum the painted papyrus clusters decorating the palace floor at Amarna. Sandstone reliefs at the mortuary temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel depict prisoners strung together with papyrus and on painted friezes on the dais of the thrones of pharaohs.
Papyrus and Architecture
The papyrus symbol is often an essential feature in the small (Figure 15.) as well as the large.Towering papyrus form columns and pilasters in palaces and temples abound. Among many examples, the earliest is dated to the Dynasty III of the Old Kingdom, in the handsome papyrus-form pilasters on the building façade of the pyramid complex of King Djoser at Saqqara. The stalk on the pilaster is triangular in outline as is found on the plant. The style was replaced by the clustered type so common to later Egyptian temples. The Hypostyle Hall in the Temple of Amun at Karnak is an exceptional example (Figure 16.),the famous, scale model of which can be seen in the McClung Museum’s Egyptian Gallery.
Here the papyrus is full blown and in the round. The column tapers and is encircled by pointed leaves at its base and the capital in the form of an umbel. Also at Karnak is a towering pillar decorated in high relief with the symbolic papyrus stalks, erected by King Thutmosis III in Dynasty XVIII. Private dwellings were decorated with papyrus columns and pilasters as well.
Today, what might be the ancient species is now found growing naturally in the Wadi Natron, an oasis area just west of the Delta in Egypt as was mentioned earlier. This survivor may be the ancient species, but there are so many variants that problems have arisen in pinpointing the exact ancient plant species. Interestingly, a continuous growth of what some have judged to be the ancient plant is still profuse along the White Nile in the southern Sudan, some 1,500 miles south of the Egyptian border, alluded to by James Bruce. Various species of papyrus are found in other parts of the world, including the United States, and the continent of Africa such as in large areas of west, east and central Africa and on the island of Madegasca. The papyrus groves of Sicily are thought derived from papyrus introduced from Egypt by the Arabs in the 10th century A.D.
* This paper was given Sunday, June 30, 2002, in the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at the Univeristy of Tennessee, Knoxville in conjunction with “Pharaoh’s Harvest,” a travelling exhibition about ancient and modern Egyptian plants, and also to provide a better understanding of the nature of the papyrus as exhibited in the McClung Museum's Egyptian Gallery.
See Also: PDF version of the bibliography