By Rana Khaled
The papyrus plant, considered sacred in ancient Egyptian culture, played a crucial role in Pharaonic civilisation. But in the centuries since, it has nearly disappeared.
Ecologist John Gaudet, who calls the plant one of the “most valuable plants on earth”, has dedicated his life to studying papyrus and its different uses. In his new book, “The Plant that Changed the World”, Gaudet outlines the history of papyrus and the future it faces. In the book, he argues that the plant can help Egypt and other African countries overcome some of the most dangerous ecological and environmental problems of our times, including pollution.
The largest member of the sedge family of plants, papyrus grows in mats over water where it forms a floating matrix strong enough to support huts, cattle and small villages, he said. It is one of the fastest growing plants on earth, which means it can be harvested twice a year. The plant’s quick growth rate was particularly helpful in ancient times, when people peeled its stem apart to make paper. The papyrus bounty from the Nile delta provided not just paper for record keeping, however, but also food, fuel and boats.
“Papyrus was deeply embedded in their culture, especially in their art and architecture,” Gaudet said. “The 80-foot tall columns of Karnak based on papyrus stems or bundles of stems, and a temple plan that mimicked the reed shrines of old reveal how close papyrus was to their soul.”
Papyrus motifs adorned Pharaonic paintings, temples and tombs. The plant graced the design of amulets, mirrors and jewellery. After 3000 BC, papyrus paper and papyrus rope became major export items, providing significant export earnings for thousands of years.
“For the swamp dweller and people living on or near the water in need of a quickly built boat, mat, a length of cheap rope or even a house, it must have been a comfort to have papyrus close by, which could be used to fashion all of those things simply by harvesting the reed,” he said. “It was indispensable, well-loved and appreciated.”
Because of the plants historical significance, Gaudet was surprised to learn, as a young ecologist, that little research has been done on its ecology.
“Knowing that this ancient paper sedge had been a part of civilisation since 3000BCE, I was flabbergasted!” he said. “But it was true. People spent much time looking at the ancient paper produced from the stem of the plant but they actually knew little or nothing about the plant or its ecology.”
According to his studies, the plant still has a significant role to play today.
In many of Egypt’s lakes, pollution has proliferated to the point that the fish – and, by extension, the country’s food supplies – are suffering. In addition to toxic heavy metals, the wastewater entering Lake Manzala, near the port town of Port Said, contains raw sewage and wastes from agricultural and industrial processing. A 1994 assessment showed Egyptians could identify fish in the marketplace taken from the lake because of the prevalence of gill diseases, internal parasites, and the unmistakable smell that gave them away.
Papyrus is one of the most effective and efficient natural pollution filters known to mankind, Gaudet said.
In its cheapest form, papyrus can be used to filter wastewater by releasing sewage into a large natural swamp where the plant stretches out over the water. Often the wastewater is spread out to make the cleansing process more efficient. The papyrus swamps on Lake Victoria presently serve the same purpose.
The next most economical method is to dig out a maze of channels, canals or ponds to create waste stabilisation ponds or reed fields where wastewater is allowed to meander, he said. The principle here is to prolong its passage to give the pond vegetation or reed beds more time to act. Construction costs are kept to a minimum because mostly hand labour is involved.
Papyrus swamps also provide habitats for millions of birds, some of which overwinter there and attract tourism, which now provides Africa with a major source of foreign exchange, he said.
Gaudet is optimistic about the plant’s future, which he said has recently started to make a comeback.
“There are hundreds of green organisations in the region with an interest in sustainable growth and reversing the damage of pollution,” he said. “A very good example is the constructed filter bed in the Lake Manzala area under supervision of Professor Diaa El-Quosy who has been with the Lake Manzala Engineered Wetlands Project from its beginning in the ‘90’s.”
The project’s goal is to have 2,000 to 5,000 acres of reed beds or sedimentation ponds set aside along the coast to resolve the immediate needs of Lake Manzala. It will also see many small constructed reed beds on the desert side of all villages and towns in Egypt to promote sewage treatment and desert reclamation, he said.
“This would greatly reduce pollution in the Nile and would encourage small-scale local cultivation of deserts in preference to the unwieldy, inefficient mega schemes favoured by past governments,” he said.
Gaudet’s book was issued in mid-June by the New York publisher Pegasus.
The first part of the book deals with papyrus in ancient Egypt when it helped shape the course of history and modern civilisation. The second part deals with people, ancient and modern, who lived and worked in and near papyrus swamps. This covers especially in the largest papyrus swamp of all, the “Sudd” in Southern Sudan, the largest protected freshwater swamp in the world. The last section continues into modern times, exploring the role that papyrus might play in Africa’s future.
In Egypt, future steps will be needed to develop incentives, awards and assistance programmes to reduce pollution and help the nation become more environmentally friendly, Gaudet said.
“With time and experience, Egypt could become a major player in the field of filter swamps and a source of hope and encouragement for all of Africa,” he said. “Egypt has the wherewithal, technology and experience to show what can be done.”