Egyptian papyrus makers carry on the tradition


In the lush green fields of Egypt’s fertile Delta Valley, farmers and artisans struggle to earn a living while continuing the Pharaonic tradition of papyrus making.

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In the 1970s, an art teacher from the village of al-Qaramus taught farmers the millennial techniques of transforming the plant into elaborate paper decorated with ornate designs and texts.

The village and its surroundings, located about 80 kilometers northeast of Cairo, is now the largest papyrus production center in the country, according to industry experts.

Once used by the ancient Egyptians as writing paper, local artists now decorate the papyrus with hieroglyphics, Arabic calligraphy, and depictions of antiquity and nature to create keepsakes for eager visitors.

But tourism to the North African country has taken a hit since its 2011 revolution, and after a Russian airliner was shot down by ISIS in 2015.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further weakened the sector: Egypt only earned $ 4 billion in tourism revenue last year, a quarter of what it anticipated before the global health crisis.

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Today, al-Qaramus has 25 farms trying to make ends meet by selling papyrus, up from around 500 before the revolution, according to farmer and artist Said Tarakhan.

“I lost about 80 percent of my total income, I was making almost $ 1,000 a month and now it’s almost zero,” the 60-year-old man told AFP as he showed his replicas of Tutankhamun paintings.

The papyrus, with its fan-shaped foliage, grows in water and can reach four meters in height. Its shape served as the inspiration for the decoration of the columns of ancient Egyptian temples.

To make paper, workers use wire to cut the stems into thin strips, which are submerged in water and then layered on top of each other to create leaves.

The sheets are placed in a compressor to compact them, and the paper obtained is left to dry in the sun before being decorated with writings or colored patterns.

Papyrus workshop owner Abdel Mobdi Mussalam, 48, said his staff had shrunk from eight ten years ago to just two.

“The papyrus is our only source of income. This is what nourishes me and my children, ”he told AFP.

Tarakhan said he is trying to branch out into other papyrus products such as notebooks and sketchbooks.

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A few months ago, his son Mohammed launched an online store to sell his new range.

“At first we were just selling locally to those who came to our house, but after COVID we thought we could reach more people, and even strangers, via the internet,” the 30-year-old said.

“We try to think differently so that we can continue,” said Elder Tarakhan, who in 2014 founded a local association for papyrus artisans.

“I thank COVID-19 for locking us in our homes and forcing us to improve our business model. “

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Near the famous pyramids of Giza, a hundred kilometers away, Ashraf al-Sarawi exhibits paintings on papyrus in his large shop, devoid of tourists.

He said he lost most of his income last year due to the pandemic, but expressed hope that tourism would pick up soon.

“Tourism never dies,” said the 48-year-old. “He may get sick for a while, but he will come back. “


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