papyrus was an alternative to timber -- 1/16/19

Today's selection -- from The Book by Keith Houston. The papyrus reed was a key commodity in Ancient Egypt:

"Cyperus papyrus has always been an interloper in Egypt, if a wel­come one. To the south, beyond the country's borders, the banks of the White Nile and the shores of Lake Victoria, its source, are crowded by stands of papyrus sedge. Here, triangular, grasslike stems crowned by sprays of fine leaves grow from submerged roots to reach around ten feet in height. ...

"The inhabitants of the fertile Nile delta cultivated papyrus for papermaking purposes from the fourth millennium BCE onward, though papyrus reeds were adapted to a bewildering array of other uses too. ...

"In a country that was marshy and arid by turns and conspicu­ously devoid of trees, papyrus reeds provided a convenient alternative to importing timber. The roots of the plant were robust enough to be carved into tools and utensils, and, in the form of charcoal, they burned hot enough to smelt iron and copper, reaching temperatures of 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit (900 degrees Celsius). ...

"Papyrus stood in for wood in ancient Egyptian boatbuilding, especially for the simple, flat-bottomed punts used for hunting and harvesting in the Nile's papyrus swamps. Dried papyrus is around four times more buoyant than balsa wood, and, while it eventually becomes waterlogged and loses that buoyancy, a boat made from sheaves of plen­tiful papyrus reeds was easily replaced. But papyrus boats were prized for more than just their buoyancy. In Egyptian myth, the goddess Isis sailed the Nile on a papyrus boat to search for fragments of the body of Osiris, her husband (and her brother, so the story goes), and it was said that the river's crocodiles feared to attack any such craft lest they encountered a wrathful deity aboard it instead of a cowering human.

"Other papyrus vessels, both larger and smaller, plied the Nile along­side the simple rafts of hunters and farmers: papyrus barges may have helped transport the colossal stone blocks used to build the pyramids, while some translations of the Old Testament say that the basket in which Moses was hidden among the reeds of the Nile's shores was made from papyrus, not bulrushes. Moses may have had Isis to thank for preserving him from the Nile's ravening crocodiles as much as he did his mother.

"Also in a nautical vein, cords made from papyrus were famously strong and light. The thin green skin of the reed was peeled off in strips and plaited to make rope, while cables up to three inches in diameter could be woven from whole stems. Papyrus rope was so renowned, in fact, that a number of ancient writers mentioned it by name as they recounted near-mythical events of their recent history.

Scene of papyrus gathering in the tomb of Puyemre

"Writing in the mid-fifth century BCE, for example, the Greek historian Herodotus described how the Persian king Xerxes, preparing for an invasion of the Greek mainland, ordered the Hellespont strait in northwest Turkey to be bridged with ropes made of Egyptian papyrus and Phoenician flax. The current proved too strong, however, and the bridge's pontoons were swept away. Displaying the sort of theatrical fury that informed his recent reinvention as a comic-book villain, Xerxes ordered the waters of the Hellespont to be whipped three hundred times. The straits now suitably chastised, two more bridges were built -- successfully this time, employing four papyrus and two flaxen cables per bridge -- and the invasion proceeded.

"The papyrus plant was also used in more domestic settings. Herod­otus wrote that the Egyptians ate the lowest cubit, or eighteen inches, of the reed's stem, and that 'Those who wish to use (papyrus) at its very best, roast it before eating in a red-hot oven.' Modern experiments reveal that papyrus contains few calories and is meager in nutrients, though the spongy white pith may have acted as a source of dietary fiber.

"Aside from its dubious value as a foodstuff, papyrus was a com­mon ingredient in medicinal preparations: papyrus ash healed ulcers; macerated with vinegar, it treated wounds; the pressed juice relieved eye complaints; and, somewhat redundantly, it was mixed with wine to cure insomnia. A patient who imbibed such a draught could sleep it off on a mattress of bundled papyrus reeds, huddled under a blanket woven from papyrus skins.

"Papyrus's centrality in the daily lives of Egyptians was a potent symbol of the land, its traditions, and its social strictures. Ancient Egyptians called the plant papuro, or 'of the pharaoh'; the hieroglyphic symbol for Lower Egypt, where the Nile delta spreads out to meet the sea, was a clump of papyrus reeds; and the sign for a single stem stood for youth, vigor, and growth.

"Hapi god of the yearly flooding of the Nile, which carried essential nutrients into the fields along its banks, was depicted with papyrus growing from his head, and leafy crowns of papyrus reeds were used as decorations at religious services and funerals. Priests were forbidden from wearing sandals made from anything except papyrus, and the temples over which they presided featured columns modeled after the papyrus stem."



Keith Houston


The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of our Time


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2016 by Keith Houston


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