en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 24, Number 4July/August 1973

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

The Return of Papyrus

"But no one knows how the ancient Egyptians made it," his friend argued. "Then we'll find out," Hassan Ragab replied.

Written by Mason Rossiter Smith
Photographed by John Feeney

After nine centuries, papyrus is making a comeback.

In ancient times papyrus, the first "paper," was second only to linen textiles as an Egyptian export and second to none as an influence on civilization. The Assyrians used it to record their triumphs, Charlemagne used it to keep his records and the Romans came to depend on it so extensively that when, in the reign of Tiberius, Egypt's papyrus crop failed, Roman commerce ground to a halt. Papyrus, indeed, was, until about the 12th century, a key element in the transmission and preservation of man's knowledge of religion, philosophy, literature, science, art, medicine and business.

In the eighth century, however, the Arabs conquered Samarkand and extracted from Chinese prisoners taken in the campaign a new formula for paper. This formula, which blended fibers from mulberry bark, bamboo stalks and rice straw, had been developed in China about 105 A.D. and was so much cheaper that when the Arabs conquered Egypt and introduced it the use of papyrus quickly began to decline.

Even with Chinese paper in the field, papyrus held on for another 400 years. But as new techniques developed—paper making from rags, cotton fibers and then wood pulp—its value continued to lessen. And when irrigation and reclamation of land along the Nile for other agricultural purposes began to wipe out the once prolific papyrus plant, the game was up. Papyrus disappeared, and with it the closely guarded secret of how it was made.

That was the situation in 1956, when Hassan Ragab, Egyptian engineer, soldier, diplomat and cabinet minister—and today president of the Papyrus Paper Institute—was named Egyptian ambassador to China with instructions to see if China would help Egypt construct paper mills. Egypt was particularly interested in getting Chinese help because China was then the world's largest producer of paper made from rice straw. Since Egypt had plenty of rice straw—and little or no wood pulp—the government hoped China would help Egypt make paper from it.

The Chinese authorities welcomed the proposal and arranged for the ambassador to visit their paper mills. As part of his itinerary he stopped by to see a small family paper handicraft operation and saw paper manufactured by manual methods not much different from those employed nearly 2,000 years earlier when China invented the new process of paper production.

"Surprisingly," he now recalls, "I didn't find much on the industrial level that we didn't already know. I was most impressed, however, by China's cottage paper industry—a real home handicraft. And it occurred to me that if we could set up something like that in Egypt, perhaps it might become another tourist attraction."

He thought about it through two more diplomatic assignments to Rome and Belgrade, and in 1969 eventually suggested it to his government. "Fine," someone replied, "but why not make papyrus? After all, it's part of Egypt's history."

"Because," he replied, "no one knows how the ancient Egyptians made it."

"Well, why not find out how they did?" Why not, indeed, thought Hassan, and the search was on.

One key problem, he immediately discovered, was where to find some papyrus. A perennial, non-woody aquatic plant, Cyperus papyrus grows even higher than the proverbial elephant's eye—15 to 25 feet—and has a heavy root system, a triangular stem and a tasseled flower head known botanically as the inflorescence. It used to grow throughout Egypt so profusely that it became the symbol of Lower Egypt, but is today extinct there.

Hassan Ragab, therefore, turned to the original sources in Ethiopia and Sudan and brought in seeds. When that failed, he brought in rhizomes (roots) from both countries and, after years of innumerable experiments, established four large plantations on the banks of the Nile near Cairo, the smallest of which stands beside the Papyrus Institute at No. 3, Nile Avenue in Giza.

And that was just a basic step. Next he had to uncover the ancient secret of manufacture—so jealously guarded by the ancients as a monopoly of the pharaoh that no text of any kind on papyri, no descriptive wall paintings and no tomb inscriptions are known to exist. In his search for information, Hassan says, he consulted all the world's leading encyclopedias and the writings of ancient visitors to Egypt—Theophrastus of Greece, Herodotus and especially the Elder Pliny of Rome. But all he found out was that those reporters were wrong on several counts.

"Probably none of them knew much about paper making, or they had to get the information through interpreters. Or maybe the interpreter wasn't too well informed, or was just pulling the visitor's leg."

In the process he learned that the basis of papyrus was the fibrous core of the papyrus plant—more widely known, perhaps, as the bulrushes in which Moses was hidden. Someone, somehow, had learned how to peel the papyrus, extract the core, press it and polish it ("With an elephant's tooth," said one source), and Hassan was determined to learn too. He hoped to get a government subsidy for his experiments, but when he didn't, he began to experiment, on his own, in his own bathtub.

Now, 12 years later, he is still using bathtubs, but he has transferred the tubs to an old houseboat anchored off the western bank of the Nile at Giza. The houseboat serves as the center of an odd complex that includes a converted yacht, an onshore workshop and the beginnings of a papyrus museum. It also serves as a forum from which Hassan Ragab enthusiastically explains how papyrus is made in 1973.

"Papyrus," he said, lopping off a stem with a large machete, "had many uses in the daily life of the ancient Egyptians. From the flower head, they took garlands to adorn the shrines of the gods. The wood of the root was used for fuel as well as to make various utensils. From the stem, boats, sails, mats, cords, sandals—and, of course, writing materials—were made.

"The lower, softer part of the stem was also a common article of food, either raw or cooked. I've tried it myself, and it's not bad. In short, papyrus was as useful to the Egyptians as bamboo is now to the Chinese and Japanese.

"Among other things, we had to learn the life cycle of the plant itself. Harvesting, usually during October, November and December, is a delicate process. First, as you may have noticed when I cut this stem, the flower head is cut off to disentangle the stem from its neighboring plants. A bruised or broken stem is useless for paper making because the inner pith, normally very white, gets stained with rust-colored spots. Result: a defective sheet."

With the machete, he trimmed off about two feet from the lower part of the stem. "Only this section is useful for sheet making, since only this is broad enough to produce strips of suitable width." With the same blade, he carefully peeled off the green outer rind, exposing the white pith inside. Now, with equal care, he sliced the pith longitudinally into thin strips of nearly equal thickness; like the plant itself, the strips are a bit more than an inch and a half wide.

"We can use these now, as they are," he explained, "but we can also dry and store them for future use. There is only one crop a year, so we need a supply to keep us going the year round."

Inside the factory, beneath elaborate Islamic carving and wall decoration, the main deck of the houseboat was crowded with a surprising array of unusual equipment, including five porcelain enameled bathtubs filled with water and bundles of soaking papyrus, a long table with a white covering and four manually operated, old-fashioned screw letter presses.

"This equipment," Mr. Ragab grinned, "probably would surprise the ancient Egyptians even more than it does you. But we think the process is essentially the same.

"The strips of pith, as you see, undergo several soaking operations, beating by mallet or rolled, then more soaking until they're completely hydrated. By this method, we get rid of all undesirable organic material, thus exposing the fibers at the strip surface in a free state.

"The largest sheet size in ancient times was about 30 by 40 centimeters, so now we cut the strips 30 and 40 centimeters long, the width and breadth of the sheet. We have the waste for smaller sheets.

"Now, let's make a sheet." He placed on the table a thick felt pad, somewhat larger than the finished sheet, then a sheet of cotton cloth on top.

"The ancient Egyptians," he said, "used linen, but modern cotton cloth serves just as well and, furthermore, Egypt has lots of it." Carefully, he laid a 40-centimeter strip horizontally across the top margin of the cloth, then others parallel to it, taking care to overlap the first strip by about one millimeter. This process continued until the sheet was complete. Now he began to lay the 30-centimeter strips crosswise from left to right, on top of the others and overlapping each other in the same manner. Using a squeegee, he pressed out the excess water, covered the sheet with another layer of cotton cloth and felt, placed it in one of the letter presses, turned the handle, hard, to apply pressure and expel remaining drops of water, these to be absorbed by the felt.

"The wet felt," he explained, "is changed periodically with a dry one until all traces of water are extracted. During the drying process, the fibers in the laid strips hook together and under pressure they set permanently when completely dried—in effect, the strips are firmly cemented together.

"This process differs very little from cementing macerated plant fibers in pulp to produce ordinary paper. The only difference is that in the use of pulp, the plant fibers are in a free and disintegrated state, while in papyrus sheet making, the fibers, free though they are, are still attached to the surface of the pith strips."

He held a finished sheet before one of the colored glass windows in the houseboat. "See the pattern?" The two layers of strips showed clearly.

Sheets produced at the institute, Hassan said, possess almost all the characteristics required in any modern writing or printing papers. "I've tried every method of handwriting—pencil, ballpoint pen, ordinary pen—all with very satisfactory results.

"The same is true for drawing and painting, whether oil, water or gouache colors. Even printing quality is good."

There are weaknesses. Papyrus folds less easily than ordinary papers. And it is expensive. A single plain sheet, 30 by 40 centimeters, sells for five Egyptian pounds (about U.S. $14). But on the other hand, papyrus may have great potential as pulp.

"Papyrus," said Hassan, "grows wild and in great profusion on millions of acres in the Sudan, still more in Ethiopia, Chad and other Central African countries. If pulp mills could be established pulp could make them rich—and Egypt would have an abundant supply close at hand, less need to import from overseas.

"You see papyrus is a perennial. You harvest it and it grows again. It's not like oil—once you pump oil out of the ground, it's gone. Even assuming we could develop forests in Egypt—and this is doubtful—it takes years to grow a tree. But Central Africa can produce two crops of papyrus a year, as compared with only one in Egypt."

A standard part of Hassan's talk is his display of a series of painted sheets, reproductions from ancient papyri in Egyptian museums. "The sale of these makes it possible for us to finance our small factory and continue research in the institute. We sell to tourists, Egyptological societies, libraries and museums around the world."

In the workshop ashore, Mr. Ragab has applied his engineering talent and experience to devise mechanical equipment to speed up the production process—slicing machines, wooden rollers, apparatus to squeeze out water more efficiently. But it is to the museum, gradually taking form nearby, that Hassan repeatedly returns. For there is the site of his biggest dream: restoration of the famous library of Alexandria.

"That library, as you may remember, held 800,000 " volumes of papyri—until Julius Caesar burned them. We can't restore all of them, but there are more than 40,000 papyrus scrolls still in existence today and once we can get some of the originals and copies of others under one roof, we'll have a nucleus.

"That assumes, of course, that by then we will have begun to make papyrus on a large enough scale—and we will, we will."

Mason Rossiter Smith, former editor and publisher of U.S. daily and weekly newspapers and a foreign correspondent during the 1950's, is now director of the university press at the American University in Cairo.

This article appeared on pages 32-36 of the July/August 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1973 images.