The Story of Papyrus

Papyrus dominated the world scene from 1100 BC until 900 AD, a span of two thousand years. During that time the pith of the papyrus stem was the only component in millions of pieces of paper then in use. In the West, it was the primary medium used for the written word, there was no other in common use.  The supply of papyrus virtually regulated the growth of commerce and the day-to-day working of the government in all nations of the civilized world. Papyrus ruled the Western world in the fashion that King Cotton ruled the South in the US.

The first uses of papyrus were for an array of items needed around the house, the early inhabitant of Egypt made cradles, roof thatching, mats, baskets, rope, lamp wicks, bouquets, even coffins, all from papyrus. Boats, canoes for everyday use and for boats large enough to cross oceans as proven by Thor Heyerdahl, all required a vast quantity of material. The plant was needed to fuel the public baths as well as to provide a half million books to the Royal Library in Alexandria, along with the fifty-eight public libraries in Rome. Between them they contained virtually all of the Western world’s literature and sacred texts.

Papyrus swamps today in Africa are disappearing, Field of Reeds describes how the Lake Victoria papyrus swamps are pitted against water needed to generated energy, how the swamps in Lake Naivasha are forced to compete with a flower export market worth hundreds of millions of dollars, while papyrus wetlands in the Okavango, Congo Basin and southern Sudan are all in danger of being lost. Positive examples are given and solutions proposed that will help conserve the remaining swamps.

The last phase of the story deals with the rise of tourism in Egypt in the 80’s and 90’s in which papyrus paper became a factor. Paper hand-made using the ancient method employs thousands of people in Egypt and brings in millions in tourist dollars. Field of Reeds deals with all of the above as they relate to people. The ancient scholars rightly saw papyrus as the wonder of the age. Like some magical cornucopia of the gods, it never stopped producing.  Today the tables are reversed and the papyrus swamps are being cleared even though they are still capable of serving Man by providing a natural filter for sewage and a habitat for birds, a large factor in tourism and foreign exchange earnings.

Once worshipped by the ancient Egyptians, papyrus helped launch Western civilization in the Nile Valley thousands of years before it began to be used as paper.

Today papyrus needs your help!