One of the oldest Egyptian hieroglyphs is the papyrus stem wadj , indicating ‘green’, ‘growth’ and ‘youth’. Papyrus groves symbolized fertility and life itself in all its vibrancy and chaos. Temple columns were often carved to look like their stems, as if their feathery fans held up the sky. The god Horus grew up protected by the screen and whisper of the reeds; his nurse, the goddess Hathor, is depicted as a cow emerging from papyrus clumps and she was worshippped with instruments that made a rattling sound, to imitate the rustle of the sedge in the wind. The plant’s associations with rejuvenation led people to wear amulets fashioned from green feldspar and to even place to them at the throats of dead relatives to make sure they remained healthy and uninjured in the afterlife. Their paradise was even called the Field of Reeds.
Sicilian Corrado Basile has devoted a long career to researching the plant–its history, habitat and uses, especially its function as a writing material. In his youth he travelled to Africa, particularly Kenya, Ethiopia and Chad, to research colonies and how local communities made use of it. In 1987 he founded the Institute of Papyrus, whose aim is to find the best ways to restore and conserve papyrus documents. He is the now director of the Papyrus Conservative Restoration Project in Egypt, working with various museums and institutions to preserve papyrus manuscripts and objects. He is also the founder of the Papyrus Museum in Ortygia.
It may seem odd that there should be a papyrus museum in Sicily, but in fact the area around Siracusa boasts the biggest colony of Cyperus papyrus in Europe. The plant arrived here around 300 BCE, during the reign of the Greek pharaoh Ptolemy II. At that time there was considerable cultural, political and mercantile exchange between the two cities; Archimedes, for example, studied at Alexandria and corresponded with friends there throughout his life. In Ortygia there is a little papyrus clump in the spring of Arethusa, where grey carp and white geese circle the tall stalks whose plumes create a kind of soft green cloud above. But the place it grows most prolifically is Fontane Ciane. This is a spring named for the nymph Ciane (where we get ‘cyan’ meaning ‘greenish blue’). She was good friends with Persephone and tried to stop Hades from kidnapping her. In Ovid’s version of the story, Ciane describes how she and her own lover Anapos have a gentle and mutually respectful relationship and that Hades should follow their example. Hades responds by turning both of them into bodies of water—Ciane Spring and Anapos River.
The museum occupies a building that used to be a monastery consecrated to Saint Augustine. Its stairs, courtyard, high ceilings and spare rooms seem steeped in centuries of serene contemplation (not counting the period it was used as a tobacco warehouse). The windows have slatted wooden Persian shutters that, thrown open, reveal pale light, cool breezes and the deep violet-blue of the Ionian Sea. (interesting side-note, the Egyptian term for the Mediterranean Sea was ‘Great Green’ and so included the wadj).
Each room of the museum is devoted to one topic. The corridors are hung with gorgeous black-and-white photographs of Basile’s research trips to Africa. One room is devoted to the plant ‘in the raw’–its growing habitat, how it is processed to make writing paper and how beautiful it is—the long bamboo-like stem and the soft beaded fronds that some compare to a feather duster and that led locals to name it parucca (wig). Another room contains an array of raw materials needed for creating a document: the minerals, powders and gums needed to make ink and paint, the sharpened reed pens, the oblong paint palettes. Finally, in the big hall, you can see objects made out of the material—rope, sandals, boats and documents.
Objects on display are selected with care and consideration, so visitors who enter not knowing or caring much about papyrus find themselves educated and intrigued. And the objects themselves are beautiful—characteristically Egyptian in their simple lines and appreciation for color and animals.
Seeing everyday items such as baskets, sandals and ropes make it tangible how important the plant must have been in a world without plastic, glass and other materials we take for granted. Particularly interesting were the boats made of bundled papyrus stems, which some African communities were using in the late twentieth century, like the one below from Chad.
Having said that, I was more interested in the writing, and it was thrilling to see this tiny fragment of a papyrus manuscript of Aristotle’s Cosmological treatise On the Heavens (De Caelo). It is from between 100-300 CE and is the only papyrus version known to exist.
Even more thrilling was having a little window into the life of ordinary people. The following fragment is an appeal to authorities by an aggrieved man of the third century BCE, so familiar it might appear in the crime news of a modern newspaper. I can imagine poor Hatheres composing a blues song about Thaues being the meanest old woman he ever did see:
Hatheres, son of the priest of the god Sokonporchnubis of the village of Muchis, declares that, on the occasion of him being absent, his wife Thaues went away, taking everything in the house. Hatheres lists all the missing items, including a ‘table made of papyrus’.
Sadly, this year the museum had to sell twenty papyrus fragments just to keep itself in business. Considering the importance of papyrus in our understanding of lost civilizations, I hope it finds some funding soon!