Ancient Egyptians used papyrus as a writing material as early as 3,000 BC. Papyrus continued to be used to some extent until around the 11th century AD. Egyptians recorded everything on it, from peace treaties and bills to marriage contracts, official letters, and medical instructions.
It has been planted in Egypt until the middle of the 20th century. By the 1960s, the industry flourished again at the hand of Hassan Ragab (1911-2004), the founder of Papyrus Institute in Cairo.
Atef Suleiman is one of the remaining papyrus makers who mastered the craft at in Ragab’s workshop. He has been practicing planting, drawing and coloring papyrus since 1988.
Atef hails from Qaramus village in the Nile Delta governorate of Sharqia, which is the only village in the country that is planting papyrus right now, he told Majalla.
Suleiman, 60, has been working in this profession despite being graduated from the Faculty of Commerce in Zagazig University.
“I was attached to this kind of art. It is very important to keep our ancient traditions alive.”
Suleiman has a factory and 30 feddans in the village.
HOW HE MAKES PAPYRUS
“The process of making papyrus is all manual and primitive,” he said.
He added that planting papyrus needs only water, manure, and a few chemicals. It is planted in six months during summer.
“Together with workers, we slice the stalks into thin strips according to the sizes which I need, using a saw to remove the green parts from the plant and taking the white part from it. Then we lay handfuls of strips across each other to form a sheet of paper.
“Then we put them in three large bowls following a specific sequence. The first bowl contains water to help soften the strips. After two hours, we put them in another bowl containing chlorine to turn the strips into the famous yellow color. Two hours later, we put them in a bowl containing potash as a cohesive material.
“Then after drying out the liquids, I lay them across one another, and gently pound the strips. Then they are pressed for one day and burnished with a smooth stone before being written on,” Suleiman said.
He said that he can draw on it directly or print a scene on it.
According to him, the difference between the use of papyrus nowadays and that of ancient Egyptians is that the latter used to draw only pharaonic shapes and scenes, but today they draw landscapes, Islamic and Coptic art, in addition to writing graduation certificates.
Struggle to survive papyrus making
Suleiman said that he gives two lectures a week in applied arts faculties in the country and also holds workshops in schools and museums to teach papyrus making.
He participated in many bazaars in the country and exhibitions abroad to teach people how to make papyrus.
“Our foreign clients demand a certain quantity which I make and bring with me when I travel with my products to showcase them abroad,” he added.
He explained that his clients from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia demand papyrus with calligraphy and Islamic designs, while he sends Pharaonic forms to Spain and the US. He creates scenes of Greek antiquities for Greece.
He said that was the situation before the Covid-19 pandemic, which totally changed his business. “I lost most of my clients and even workers after the pandemic,” he said.
“Before Covid-19 I had about 50 workers and fine arts students whom I taught how to draw and design on papyrus. Now I have only five,” he said.
He added that he is still planting and manufacturing but putting them in storage, because “there are no revenues.”
In marketing his products, he owned an office in the Haram district of Giza, where he displayed and sold his works to bazaars and exhibitions.
“I want people to learn about this industry. It is our heritage and must be continued. I am afraid that the art will become extinct,” he said.
“Unfortunately, both of my children have no relationship with papyrus making,” he said, adding that his son is a history teacher and his daughter graduated from the agriculture faculty and then got married.
He also lamented that when he teaches the younger generation, they don't stay with the industry for a long period of time.
“When I teach workers everything related to papyrus making, they practice it for a year or two maximum, then they leave it to work as tuk-tuk drivers.
“This is a dilemma in the artisan industry in general,” he said. “Regrettably, people nowadays love quick earnings.”