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Blank papyrus. Close-up of the surface.
Blank papyrus. Close-up of the surface.

Papyrus is an early form of paper made from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, a wetland sedge that grows to 5 meters (15 ft) in height and was once abundant in the Nile Delta of Egypt. Papyrus is first known to have been used in Ancient Egypt (at least as far back as the First dynasty), but it was also widely used throughout the Mediterranean region, as well as inland parts of Europe and south-west Asia.



The English word papyrus derives, via Latin, from Greek πάπυρος papuros. It is interesting to note that Greek has a second word for papyrus, βύβλος bublos (said to derive from the name of the Phoencian city of Byblos). The Greek writer Theophrastos, who flourished during the 4th century BC, uses papuros when referring to the plant used as a foodstuff and bublos for the same plant when used for non-food products, such as cordage, basketry, or a writing surface. This latter usage finds its way into English in such words as bibliography, bibliophile, and bible.

It is often claimed that Egyptians referred to papyrus as pa-per-aa [p3y pr-ˁ3] (lit., "that which is of Pharaoh"), apparently denoting that the Egyptian crown owned a monopoly on papyrus production. However no actual ancient text using this term is known. In the Egyptian language papyrus was known by the terms wadj [w3ḏ], tjufy [ṯwfy], and djet [ḏt]. Thus in reality, Greek papuros has no known relation to any Egyptian word or phrase.

Manufacture and Use

A sheet of papyrus is made from the stem of the plant. The outer rind is first stripped off, and the sticky fibrous inner pith is cut lengthwise into thin strips of about 40 cm long. The strips are then placed side by side on a hard surface, with their edges slightly overlapping, and then another layer of strips is laid on top at a right angle. The strips may have been soaked in water long enough for decomposition to begin, perhaps increasing adhesion, but this is not certain. While still moist, the two layers are hammered together, mashing the layers into a single sheet. The sheet is then dried under pressure. After drying, the sheet of papyrus is polished with some rounded object, possibly a stone.

A section of the Egyptian written on papyrus
A section of the Egyptian Book of the Dead written on papyrus

To form the long strip that a scroll required, a number of such sheets were united, placed so that all the horizontal fibres parallel with the roll's length were on one side, all the vertical fibres on the other. Greek texts were written on the recto, the lines following the fibres, parallel to the long edges of the scroll. Secondarily, expensive papyrus was often reused, writing across the fibres on the verso [1].

Papyrus scrolls were initially used (and remained so in Egypt), but during the first centuries BC and AD a rival medium was coming into use, parchment that was prepared from animal skins, folded to form quires from which book-form codices were fashioned. Early Christian writers soon adopted the codex form, and later the practice in the Gręco-Roman world was to cut sheets from papyrus rolls too, in order to form codices.

In a dry climate like that of Egypt, papyrus is stable, formed as it is of highly rot-resistant cellulose; but storage in humid conditions can result in molds attacking and eventually destroying the material. Imported papyrus that was once commonplace in Greece and Italy has since deteriorated beyond repair, but papyri are still being found in Egypt; extraordinary examples include the Elephantine papyri and the famous finds at Oxyrhynchus and Nag Hammadi. The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, containing the library of Julius Caesar's father-in-law, was preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, but has only been partially excavated.

In Egypt papyrus remained in use until circa 800 AD, when it was replaced by cheaper paper, which was introduced there by Arabs. Before then, however, the use of parchment and vellum had replaced papyrus in many areas as they are much more durable (especially in moist climates) and the fact that they can be manufactured anywhere. The latest certain date for the use of papyrus is 1057 for a papal decree and 1087 for an Arabic document. Papyrus was used as late as the 1100s in the Byzantine Empire, but there are no known surviving examples.

There have been sporadic attempts to revive the manufacture of papyrus during the past 250 years. The Scottish explorer James Bruce experimented in the late eighteenth century with papyrus plants from the Sudan, for papyrus had become extinct in Egypt. Also in the eighteenth century, a Sicilian named Saverio Landolina manufactured papyrus at Syracuse, where papyrus plants had continued to grow in the wild. The modern technique of papyrus production used in Egypt for the tourist trade was developed in 1962 by the Egyptian engineer Hassan Ragab using plants that had been reintroduced into Egypt in 1872 from France. Both Sicily and Egypt continue to have centres of limited papyrus production.

Other Usages of the Word Papyrus

  • Papyrus is also the name of a typeface created in 1983 by Chris Costello. It is a trademark of Esselte Letraset limited.
  • Papyrus Australia is a company that makes paper from Banana trees, using no water, no chemicals and minimal power. It uses the same basic principles as the ancient papyrus, the first attempt to do this on an industrial scale since the bulk of the paper industry moved to the chemical, water and energy intensive pulping process about 500 years ago.


  • [ H. Idris Bell and T.C. Skeat, 1935. "Papyrus and its uses" (British Museum pamphlet).
  • Bierbrier, Morris Leonard, ed. 1986. Papyrus: Structure and Usage. British Museum Occasional Papers 60, ser. ed. Anne Marriott. London: British Museum Press.
  • Černý, Jaroslav. 1952. Paper and Books in Ancient Egypt: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered at University College London, 29 May 1947. London: H. K. Lewis. (Reprinted Chicago: Ares Publishers inc., 1977).
  • Leach, Bridget, and William John Tait. 2000. "Papyrus." In Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, edited by Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 227–253. Thorough technical discussion with extensive bibliography.
  • Leach, Bridget, and William John Tait. 2001. "Papyrus." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, edited by Donald Bruce Redford. Vol. 3 of 3 vols. Oxford, New York, and Cairo: Oxford University Press and The American University in Cairo Press. 22–24.
  • Parkinson, Richard Bruce, and Stephen G. J. Quirke. 1995. Papyrus. Egyptian Bookshelf. London: British Museum Press. General overview for a popular reading audience.

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