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papyrus (pəpīˈrəs), a sedge (Cyperus papyrus), now almost extinct in Egypt but so universally used there in antiquity as to be the hieroglyphic symbol for Lower Egypt and a common motif in art. The roots were used as fuel; the pith was eaten. The stem was employed for sandals, boats, twine, boxes, mats, sails, cloth and most notably as a writing material (used in Egypt until the introduction of paper there in the 8th cent. and exported throughout the Mediterranean world). This writing material, which was also called papyrus, was formed into sheets by laying lengthwise slices of the sedge side by side in two layers at right angles and pressing them together with an adhesive probably composed of their own juices and Nile water. The sheets were glued end to end and rolled on wooden rods to form manuscripts. Many examples have been recovered, especially in Egypt, and have furnished valuable literary and historical matter in Greek and other languages. The science of papyrology is concerned with the study of these documents. Papyrus is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Cyperales, family Cyperaceae.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the name of an herbaceous plant, the writing material prepared from the plant in antiquity and the early Middle Ages, and the writing on the material. The word “papyrus” probably derives from the Greek form of the ancient Egyptian word meaning “imperial.” The papyrus was considered an imperial plant during the time of the Ptolemies; at the beginning of the third century B.C., the cultivation of papyrus was an imperial monopoly.

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) is a perennial herbaceous plant of the family Cyperaceae. The three-angled culms reach 5 m in length; they are thick and have scalelike leaves near the base. The leaves of the vegetative shoots resemble narrow-lanceolate blades. The inflorescences are very large umbels, with numerous cylindrical spikes consisting of six to 16 spikelets.

Papyrus grows in tropical Africa, forming a thick cover in the slow-moving waters along rivers and the shores of lakes. In ancient times it was cultivated in Egypt, Palestine, and several southern European countries. The stems were used as food and for making fabric, footwear, rafts, dugouts, and mats. At present, papyrus is cultivated as an ornamental in gardens, parks, and greenhouses. The umbrella plant (Cyperus alternifolius), a decorative houseplant and greenhouse plant having leaves at the top of the stem, is sometimes erroneously called papyrus.


Papyrus was first used as writing material in Egypt around the onset of the third millennium B.C. Beginning in the middle of the first millennium B.C., the writing material was widely used in other Mediterranean countries. It was made by splitting the stems lengthwise into thin strips and laying them side by side; strips were then laid over them at right angles. The two layers were pressed together and dried. A scroll was made by pasting several sheets together. Papyrus was white or nearly white, but with the passage of time it became dark and lost its elasticity, becoming brittle and fragile. Papyrus was used in Egypt until the ninth century A.D., even though paper, which had been invented in China, was available in Egypt in the eighth century. The word for “paper” in a number of European languages can be traced back to the ancient Greek πάπυρος.

Papyrus manuscripts are studied in papyrology, Egyptology, Semitics, and other disciplines. They are valuable sources for studying the economic, cultural, and political life of ancient Egypt and other parts of the ancient world. Not only ancient Egyptian and Coptic documents but also most Greek and Semitic texts of the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. originated in Egypt.


Korostovtsev, M. A. Vvedenie ν egipetskuiu filologiiu. Moscow, 1963. Pages 19–27.
Čermý, J. Paper and Books in Ancient Egypt. London [1952].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


A paperlike material made by pressing the pith of the papyrus plant in water.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


a tall aquatic cyperaceous plant, Cyperus papyrus, of S Europe and N and central Africa with small green-stalked flowers arranged like umbrella spokes around the stem top
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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