Egyptian Papyrus

The Importance of Unique Egyptian Papyrus Explained With Examples

Egyptian papyrus is a material produced from the Cyperus papyrus plant that ancient Egyptians used to write upon. Pieces of papyri discovered over the years continue to fascinate us, as they divulge eagerly sought-after information about ancient Egypt.
Cyperus papyrus is a plant with great historical significance, as it served as a raw material employed by the ancient Egyptians to make several products. Though it was used for making cloth, mats and cords, it is best known for being used to make 'paper'. In fact, the word paper is derived from the Egyptian word 'papyrus'.

The Cyperus Papyrus Plant

The papyrus plant grows along the banks of rivers in calm flowing waters. This aquatic plant resembles a reed and has leaves that grow from its base. Its straight, strong stem is triangular and usually grows up to about 15 feet. In ancient Egypt, this plant had multiple and diverse uses, from being a source of food, medicine and perfume; to a raw material used to make baskets, furniture and even boats. Its root and stem were eaten as vegetables; while, the stem alone was used in the construction of houses. Its miniature manifestation, the dwarf papyrus, is often grown indoors, and used for ornamental purposes.

Papyrus Paper

It is believed, that the Egyptians started making paper from papyrus as early as 4,000 BC. While making paper, the outer layers of the stem are stripped away and only the core is used. Strips from the core are soaked and drained before use. The fibrous strips are placed side by side and another set of strips are laid across them. The 'mat' thus formed is moistened and pressed. This allows the layers to fuse together owing to the sticky sap contained in them. The 'mat' is then pounded and dried in the sun. If required, the surface of the sheet is polished to give it a smooth finish. This entire procedure is used to this day to create papyrus as a specialty writing material. Depending on the requirement, the sheets were used as they were, or joined to form a scroll.

Use of Papyrus

Different qualities of papyrus were used for different purposes. Coarse papyrus was utilized for packaging, while superior papyrus was used for religious or literary texts. The papyrus was often painted on, especially in case of religious texts, with oil or gauche colors. Though Egypt's dry climate was the most conducive to the use of papyrus, it also became popular amongst the Greeks and the Romans.

Famous Papyri

Rhind Papyrus
This document has inherited its name from its buyer, Alexander Henry Rhind, a Scottish antiquary. This ancient scroll, purchased in 1858, contains mathematical tables and problems. It is sometimes referred to as the Ahmes papyrus, after the scribe who copied it in about 1650 BC.

Turin King List
This fragmented papyrus can be found in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy. A manuscript of the 19th dynasty (1292-1190 BC), it contains a chronology of the Egyptian kings. It was commissioned by Ramesses II and it is presumed to end with his rule. Unfortunately, the beginning and end of this papyrus are lost. This detailed papyrus provides a critical insight into the ancient world. It contains the lengths of the reigns of individual kings in years, months and days.

Ebers Papyrus
This manuscript dates back to 1550 BC and is one of the oldest medical texts known to the world. It reveals that the ancient Egyptians were aware of the existence of blood vessels, as well as, that the heart supplies blood to the body. In contrast, it also contains around 700 formulas and folk remedies for pest control within the house, as well as, treatments for crocodile bites and toenail pain! As is customary, this papyrus too, is named after George Maurice Ebers, a German Egyptologist, who acquired it in 1873.

All that we know about the rich tapestry of life that existed in ancient Egypt, has created in us an unquenchable desire to know more. The search for these ancient manuscripts continues, as we try to piece together the puzzle.