pierre laszlo

Cyperus papyrus

This reed, from the family of Cyperaceae, a group of herbaceous plants numbering more than 5000 species, has served mankind’s needs for communication a bit longer than cell phones. The fibers can be easily pressed into cellulosic sheets, both flexible and sturdy. They served as a support for writing from about 3,000 BC, some sources claim 4,000 BC. People in the Middle East, in Egypt in particular, gathered it for that purpose. This plant, one might say, spawned bureaucracy, in the form of scribes, trained in the art of writing.

The plant commands attention. Most handsome, it boasts a triangular stem, tipped with a star burst array of jade-green leaves and can grow several meters tall. It prefers a sandy, watery soil.  The roots and the base of the plant easily tolerate immersion in water. The Nile delta was one of its abodes. When the banks of a river are covered with the plant, they become impassable except to large animals such as elephants or hippopotamuses.

To the Egyptians of antiquity, papyrus reeds were important religious artifacts as symbolic of renewal and regeneration. They were carried ceremoniously in religious pro-cessions. Embarcations for the Gods were crafted from of this fiber-rich plant. They served numerous uses in daily life as well. A short list includes mats, string and rope, baskets, sieves, coverlets, sandals, clothing, and furniture. In particular, they were the material rafts and boats were built from.

The inside of the triangular stalk was cut into long strips. These strips were then laid out in two layers, at right angles to one another, pressed and dried into a papyrus sheet. Many such sheets were then joined end-to-end to form a roll. The natural gum of the plant held the sheets together. A roll was about one foot wide and could be up to 100 feet long. Moreover, as support for written texts, papyri can be extremely durable — much more so than cell phones — with a life expectancy measured in millennia rather than months.