Our boat sped close in beside the papyrus beds . . .
Papyrus is a reed that grows to a height of about fifteen feet in the freshwater marshes of the Nile. In Ancient Egypt it was abundant and was used to make a multitude of useful items, such as mats, baskets, shoes, mattresses, cloth and chairs and tables. It was important in boat making for sails or rope, or for tying the planks together, and was sometimes used as a wrapping in the process of mummification. It could also be used for perfume and medicine or even as a food. But it is best known for its use as a writing material and the English word 'paper' derives its etymology from the word ‘papyrus’. The Egyptians were the first people to write, and found they needed something other than stone to write on. Papyrus turned out to be the perfect solution: strong, light, durable and easy to roll up. The term refers both to the material and to what was written on it – for instance the Book of the Dead was a papyrus.
The papyrus stem was used in hieroglyphics to mean green, fresh, youth or vigour, as in growing things. Papyrus was said to hold up the sky, so papyrus was also symbolised in architecture, particularly in the columns of the temples of the New Kingdom. Fine examples of papyriform columns can be found at Karnak or the Ramesseum at Thebes.
Papyrus is extremely long-lasting and many papyri have survived for thousands of years. The earliest known use of papyrus was during the 1st Dynasty, around 3000 BC, and it continued to be used right up until the 12th century AD.
The very finest papyrus was found in the delta region and came to symbolise Lower Egypt. It has become quite rare along the Nile today and only now grows in protected areas.