How to make Papyrus?

The rulers of ancient Egypt knew full well how incredibly useful papyrus was. So much so, that they declared its making a state monopoly and allegedly guarded the secret jealously...

Around the second century, the Chinese invention of paper eclipsed the papyrus, its use quickly fading away and its "recipe" all but forgotten until 1965.

The first major difficulty to overcome in this rediscovery was to get hold of actual papyrus plants: strange as it may seem, this traditional Egyptian plant had entirely disappeared from the country and rhizomes of Cyprus papyrus had to be obtained from Sudan. It is now again heavily cultivated in the Gizah area near Cairo.

The second difficulty was obviously to figure out the process itself: amazingly for a civilization that documented every aspect of their daily life, there was no written trace whatsoever of the techniques used in Ancient Egypt.

And yet, the process of papyrus paper-making is actually remarkably simple. To make papyrus, artisans in modern-day Cairo most likely use a process identical to the one used in 4000 BC:

  • First, the inner pith of freshly cut papyrus stalks is removed and cut into long thin strips.
  • These strips are soaked for about 3 days in water, so as to clean and soften the pith (removing some of the extra sugar it contains), then pounded to break down the fibers and drain out the water.
  • They are then disposed over a cotton fabric in a first layer of slightly overlapping vertical lines, followed by a second layer of horizontal stripes.
  • After pounding the strips a last time (using a mallet-like tool) Another piece of cotton fabric is placed on top and the whole is put in a bench press.
  • The cotton clothes are changed every dozen hours and, a few days later, the papyrus is ready and can be removed from the press.
  • Usually, the sheet is then polished to a smooth finish by rubbing with a stone or block of wood.

As you can see, none of these steps (with the notable exception of the harvesting of authentic papyrus stalks on the side of the Nile river) is any hard to realize at home: the press can be replaced by a sufficiently hard support and heavy weights (encyclopedia books etc).

A more modest variant can be made even if you don't have papyrus stalks handy, using other fitting plants (I have heard that cattails works good). In this case, it can be a good idea to add a little bit of glue or wallpaper paste in the soaking water in order to make up for the sugar that insure structure cohesion when using real papyrus plants. The bottom cotton can then be replaced by a thin paper towel that should be left afterward to insure the Papyrus is tightly held together.

Nowadays if you travel in Egypt and particularly in the region of Cairo, you are likely to see locals taking part in the different steps of papyrus paper-making nearly everywhere...