The Papyrus Museum in Cairo

The Papyrus Museum

by Lara Iskander

An ancient Egyptian scribe with his Papyrus writing material

The English word papyrus is derived via Latin, from the Greek, papuros. The Arabic word is Bardy or also Warak Bardy meaning Papyrus paper.

It is often claimed that Egyptians referred to papyrus as pa-per-aa, literary meaning, that which is of Pharaoh, apparently indicating that the Egyptian crown owned a monopoly on papyrus production, though no actual ancient text using this term is known.

Papyrus was very important to the ancient Egyptians as it helped transform Egyptian society in many ways. Once the technology of papyrus making was developed, its method of production was a closely guarded secret allowing the Egyptians to have a monopoly on it as it became the lifeblood for ancient Egypt. It was even exported to many locations in the ancient world. The raw material of papyrus paper comes from the plant Cyperus papyrus, a long stemmed plant that grows in damp regions of the Nile Delta in Egypt.

The Cyperus Papyrus plant at Kew Gardens in London

This plant which grew to 4 or 5 meters in height survived in Egypt thanks to the dry climate. The plant is harvested in the fall, (October, November and December) after the flood season. Ancient Egyptians discovered how to make paper from the stems of the plant as early as 3000 B.C.

Despite the fact that the plant was mainly used in the production of paper, it was also a major component in the manufacturing of boats, rope and baskets. The roots of the plant were also burned for fuel, and from dried papyrus mats were made, mattresses, boxes, tables and sandals. On the other hand, the papyrus sheets were the preferred writing materials of the ancient world because they were light, strong, thin, durable, and easy to carry.

The regular format for ancient works of literature was the papyrus roll. It was usual to write on that side of the sheet on which the fibers ran horizontally (recto); the other side (verso) was used only exceptionally. If a sheet of papyrus has writing on both sides but in different hands, it is generally be assumed that the writing on the recto is the earliest.

Illustration of Akhenaton on Chariot

Illustration of Nefertari on Boat

Right: Illustration of Nefertari on Boat; Left: Illustration of Akhenaton on a Chariot

Displays within the Papyrus Museum

Eventually, the papyrus plant disappeared from the area of the Nile as the Egyptians gradually abandoned the production and neglected the cultivation of papyrus plantations shortly after

the Arabs introduced the pulped paper process in the 10th century, which they had learned from their Chinese prisoners. Pulped paper gained fame for its higher durability, particularly in moist climates, and the fact that it could be manufactured anywhere.

There have been several attempts to revive the manufacture of papyrus during the past 250 years. A Scottish explorer named James Bruce experimented in the late 18th century with papyrus plants from the Sudan. Following that was another attempt, also in the 18th century, by a Sicilian man named Saverio Landolina in Syracuse, where papyrus plants had continued to grow in the wild. However, the modern technique of papyrus production used in Egypt today was developed in 1962 by Dr. Hassan Ragab, an Egyptian Engineer who was long fascinated by the mysterious techniques of the ancient Egyptians.

Various framed papyrus artwork

In order to reinvent the art of papyrus-paper making in Egypt, he first obtained the roots of the plant from Sudan and Ethiopia and established what is considered to be one of the largest man papyrus plantations in the world at Jacob Island at Giza, also known as the Pharaonic Village.

Various Displays in the Museum

Various Displays in the Museum

A framed Papyrus artwork

Left: A framed Papyrus artwork;

Despite the lack of information regarding the old manufacturing methods Dr. Ragab was able to redevelop the production process and officially revive the ancient technique and make once again part of the Egyptian Culture. Today both Sicily and Egypt are almost the only places that continue to have centers of papyrus production.

Papyrus plants at the Egyptian Antiquity Museum in Cairo

It is also interesting to note that the papyrus plant is found in the rectangular pool in front of the Cairo Antiquity Museum filled also with lotus plants, both are symbolic of Lower and Upper Egypt respectively, hence why they appear frequently in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and art. The lotus or water lily floats is found in the outer rectangle, while the papyrus is in the inner one.

Front of the Papyrus Museum

Front of the Papyrus Museum

Various Pharaonic Costumes for Sale

Various Pharaonic Costumes for Sale

Dr. Hassan Ragab finally opened his Papyrus Institute in 1968 in attempt to re-establish this ancient technique and to show the public how it was done. Today, the Museum is a government approved shop making and selling authentic papyrus in addition to a variety of pharaonic souvenirs and costumes.

The Papyrus Museum

The Hassan Ragab Papyrus Institute, also known as the Papyrus Museum, is located on the west bank of the river Nile, between the Cairo Sheraton and the University bridge, Kobry al-Gamaa, almost one kilometer from the center of Cairo. It occupies the lower level of one of the biggest Nile houseboats and has a fascinating view of Cairos Nile-front buildings. The museum contains the largest collection of papyrus reproductions of all the famous paintings of ancient Egypt. During the 1970's & 1980's this Institute was the third most important touristic site in Egypt, after the Pyramids and the Cairo Antiquity Museum.

Displays of other objects for sale in the Museum

Following the success of his papyrus revival venture, he started working on the idea of creating a living museum of Egypt's ancient history. In 1974 he converted Jacob's Island into a replica and living exhibit of an Ancient Egyptian community isolating it from the surrounding views of modern Cairo by planting 5,000 trees.

Bust of Dr. Hassan Ragab

The Papyrus Museum is an excellent place to visit even if you are not interested in buying as there is no entrance fee or purchase required. However, most tourists do end up buying something given the brilliant quality and variety of the exhibited works. The institute provides a very interesting demonstration , available English, on how the papyrus plant was turned into a writing material by the ancient Egyptians that was able to survive for thousands of years.

This Papyrus making process is also demonstrated in the Pharaonic Village, though in more authentic surroundings, but the museum offers a good substitution if you are unable to arrange a visit to that location.

The sign at the Papyrus Museum

Special orders are available at the Museum and one can request special paintings or have your names written in hieroglyphic or Arabic on the papyrus as a souvenir, which of course makes a very nice lasting memory of your visit to Egypt.

Perhaps the prices at the Papyrus Museum may be a just a bit more than those found from street vendors in other tourist destinations and souvenir shops. However, one can rest assured that there products are of higher quality as they are made of the original Cyperus plant and not Banana stalk or sugar cane that may deteriorate rapidly and is frequently the material offered by street vendors. Dr. Hassan died in 2004 after a life full of achievements and discoveries. The Papyrus Museum and Pharaonic Village, now operated by his family are still major attractions in Cairo.

Papyrus Museum: 121 Al-Nil Street, Giza.
Tel: 336-7212, 348-9035/8676/8177. Open 9am to 9pm. No entrance fee.
The Pharaonic Village: 3 Al-Bahr Al-A'zam St, Giza. Tel: 571- 8675/6/7. Admission fees vary according to programme. Open: 9am-9pm in summer, 9am-6pm in winter