The Ancient Egyptian invention that made everything else possible

At the dawn of civilization, settlers on the Nile River made use of an everyday material to do something amazing

Published June 22, 2014 12:00PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Waj</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Waj via Shutterstock)

Excerpted from “Papyrus: The Plant That Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today's Water Wars”

The history of Egypt boggles the mind. By any standard the scale of achievement was enormous, but through it all, it seems clear that the economy remained rooted in agriculture. It was the everyday business of the ancient Egyptians to produce food. This they did using a system that was the envy of all. Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project, said that overall, Egypt’s system of basin irrigation proved inherently more stable from an ecological, political, social, and institutional perspective than that of any other irrigation-based society in human history, including the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia where a fallow year had to be interposed to rest the land between harvests on land that was also subject to salinization, something that did not happen along the Nile. “Fundamentally … the system sustained an advanced civilization through numerous political upheavals and other destabilizing events over some 5,000 years. No other place on Earth has been in continuous cultivation for so long.”

According to Dr. Butzer, during late Paleolithic times the great bulk of early settlements were concentrated in the floodplains on the levees and the immediate riverbanks of the Nile. From 5000 BC, well before the first wooden boats, it probably occurred to most Egyptians that travel by water was a must. Today from satellite images, arable land in the Nile Valley is seen as a long green swath running the length of Egypt, with a bright blue river running down its center reminding everyone that if they intended to travel from one end of the country to the other, the message was clear: use a boat. Since boats made of wood were costly, everyday vessels—the thousands, even millions of small craft that were the work boats of ordinary souls—had to be made of cheap, reliable stuff. And that was as true in prehistoric times as it is in the 21st century.

Today it is plastic and fiberglass. Then, it was papyrus.

In building a reed boat, the trick is to tie the bundles in several places in order to trap air inside the reeds. The tighter the binding the better the buoyancy, much like the effect created by flotation tanks of modern times, another innovation that made for greater safety on the water.

Reed boats sit high in the water and will not sink unless they are broken apart or become waterlogged, which happens if they are left for a year or two in water without being periodically dried out. These early vessels could not support a stepped mast typically made from a single heavy pole because with time it would work its way through the reed bundles. Thus, many reed boats were probably equipped with an A-frame, a light frame made of wooden poles that had two feet held in place by a complicated set of lines called “serial stays.”

These consisted of a parallel series of six lines on either side of the bipod or A-frame mast, with all twelve lines (i.e., stays) anchored to the gunwales aft of mid-ships. This arrangement provided flexibility to the stern section of a reed boat and allowed the hull to follow the motion of the sea. If they had used a single stay, as in modern sailboats, the mast would have snapped or the stern of these ancient reed craft would have worked loose from the rest of the boat. On a modern sailboat the fore and aft stays are important: they keep the mast centered. On a reed boat the stays serve a different purpose. Since reed boats have no keel, the long bundles of reeds would buckle unless kept under compression by the serial stays, so the stays served in place of a keel.

All of this meant that boatbuilding required a great deal of rope, which in turn drove the need for rope production made from papyrus.

* * *

It is not surprising that papyrus boats go so far back in history; models of papyrus boats from 5400–4000 BC are among the earliest datable evidence of boats themselves. This dependency on boats persisted throughout all of recorded history. Boats were equated with life, an attitude that must be expected when one lives in a floodplain that is inundated for almost a third of the year. From before 7000 BC until the First Millennium, for at least eight thousand years, the Nile provided the great highway and papyrus provided the common material, one of the means by which the country could develop as a nation. And let’s face it, as long as the raw material was growing wild in local swamps, boats would be cheap and easy to build, and God help the man who didn’t have one. The poorest soul in the next world was said to be the one left on shore after death, at the mercy of the elements, his soul pleading with someone for a seat in their papyrus boat. Of course that also offered the opportunity to show Osiris and others what a fine person you were by offering others a seat in your boat.

Throughout Egyptian history, the tradition persists that any boat made of papyrus would repel crocodiles. I had only one opportunity to test this out. It happened on Lake Tana in Ethiopia, one of the many lakes in Africa where papyrus grows in abundance. It was from this lake that in 1969 Thor Heyerdahl shipped tons of papyrus to build his ships, Ra I and Ra II. The lake is also famous as the source of the Blue Nile. I was there to collect samples of papyrus for analysis. I intended to take them back to Kampala, where I was comparing papyrus plants collected from other places to see if there were any regional differences.

I landed at a small airstrip near the lake and checked into the government hotel, where I explained my intentions to the manager. He told me he would help me locate the owner of a tanqwa, a canoe made of papyrus. The next morning a fisherman was waiting to show me a proper tanqwa made of papyrus stems sewn together and fitted with a bundle of stems as ballast in the center, a method not changed for thousands of years. He offered to help me collect the samples of papyrus that I needed and, once we agreed on a price, we set off from the hotel landing. He poled us out along a channel close to shore, a channel that ran some distance before we reached the open lake, a body of water 1,350 sq. miles in area.

That day the surface was calm and we made good progress, but not far from the hotel I spotted a large specimen of Crocodylus niloticus. I say “large” because this beast was at least 16ft long. When the Greeks first saw one in Egypt they called it a krokodilos, after their old word for a lizard, or “stone worm.” To them, this “stone worm” was so called because of its habit of basking in the sun on rocky areas near riverbanks. True to their ancient observation, this specimen was basking on a stony outcrop close to shore, so close that we would have to pass under its snout if we held our course. We were still in the channel and hemmed in by papyrus on one side and the shore on the other side, on which lay this man-killer with jaws now wide open, glaring at us.

I turned to the fisherman and indicated excitedly that he should backpaddle—and fast. He had the only paddle and I could do nothing, as I was balanced precariously on top of the bundle of papyrus stems used for ballast. The least movement seemed to tip the boat, but he only smiled and said in accented English, “No worry, crocodile is afraid.”

Was I having a bad dream, I wondered? Here we were, aimed straight at an animal that was about 2 or 3ft longer than our canoe and at least three times as heavy, and to make matters worse, if we continued in this direction the prow would poke him right in the nose.

Perhaps reading my mind, the crocodile made a loud noise halfway between a bellow and a hiss. Frantically I again turned and motioned to the fisherman, who smiled as usual and said, “See,” and with several strokes propelled us straight at the animal.

The next few minutes seemed an eternity. I was reconciled to a savage, watery death—but suddenly the crocodile got up on its four legs and, as the animal behaviorists say, “high walked” off the stony ledge into the muddy water. Once there, with several powerful lashes of its tail it quickly swam away from us. As it disappeared down the channel I turned and looked at the fisherman, who smiled a third time and shrugged his shoulders. “They are much afraid of papyrus boat!” he said. And I thought, though Isis may have established this with her canoes, I don’t think I’ll ever have the guts to try it again.

* * *

When is a boat more than a boat? Alexander Badawy, former Professor Emeritus of Art History at UCLA, suggested that in the early days quite a few people made their homes and lived their entire lives on papyrus boats or large rafts. And why not? Such a home built floating in a backwater swamp would rise and fall with the water and would be mobile and quite handy to have during inundations. As the flood decreased, the reed boat would be stranded on the mud where it would continue serving as a house while it dried during the remainder of the year. When the sun passed through Aquarius, or Hapi, it would be ready to float again the minute the first trickle of water reached the hull.

Many of Badawy’s pre-dynastic papyrus boats had elaborate structures with decks, flags, and awnings as well as cabins. Some looked astonishingly like modern houseboats. Their cousins, I’m sure, can be found today in the backwaters of Louisiana or even moored along the Thames in London’s posh Chelsea district.

According to Prof. Vinson, the first wooden boats were built only after the woodworking skills and tools were available, perhaps from the Fourth Millennium. Until then, from about 8000 BC onward, not having papyrus would have meant looking for alternatives, more experimentation, and less foreign exchange from exports.

During a long period of prehistoric time, papyrus was essential in order for people to make use of the river. As Fekri Hassan said, “The development of Egyptian civilization would not have been possible without riverine navigation.” We can conclude, then, that for thousands of years Egyptians were very lucky to have papyrus at hand.

The sleek models drawn by antique ship and boat designer Börn Landström, the late Swedish-speaking Finnish writer, illustrator, artist, and yachtsman, are examples of the early papyrus craft in use by the dwellers of the Water World. Landström was the man who designed Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra boats. His boats followed the lines of several drawings of Egyptian sailing vessels taken from vases dating back to 3200–3100 BC. He pointed out that these drawings were the earliest known pictures of boats under sail.

At that time and until many years later, sails were made of the skins of papyrus stems woven into a mat; the same skins could also be twisted and braided into rope for the lines. Being so equipped, the first sailing boat was papyrus from stem to stern; the only things not made from papyrus were the stone anchor, the light wooden mast (light enough to be carried on a reed hull), and the steering oars and paddles.

But what if papyrus had not been there? Reed boats were in common use in other river valleys of the ancient world where civilizations were also evolving, as in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. In those cases the people used cane grass, a tall reed called phragmites. Phragmites also grows on the Nile; might that be used in place of papyrus?

Not at the time. In the modern era, after the Aswan High Dam was built, when the salinity of the Nile increased and the flooding cycle was modulated, phragmites made great strides. It grows today along both riverbanks all the way from the delta to the dam. Often mistakenly called “papyrus” by the unwitting tourist, it is a grass, not a sedge, and in pre-dynastic days it would not have fared as well. The flow and flood regimes outlined by Prof. Butzer would have been too much for it to thrive at a high enough level to be of use on so pervasive a scale and in large enough quantities.

The Cairo University pioneer ecobotanist Prof. Migahid grouped phragmites with the bulrush Typha in the low-flood species category, which means that both plants have to be rooted in mud and will only tolerate flooding to a limited level. Stable mud and low water would be rare in the path of a raging watercourse. Papyrus on the other hand is a high-flood species that does not have to be rooted; even though it has stems that grow to 15–20ft tall, they are light enough so that the plant floats and accommodates itself to the water level.

In other words, in prehistoric days on the Nile there would have been no substitute for papyrus. But times change; the wealth and stability of the governments that evolved demanded stronger, roomier cargo vessels. This meant a shift from the light paddled reed boats to heavier wood plank boats powered by oars and sail.

* * *

The Arrival of the Wooden Boat

According to Prof. Ward, maritime archaeologist at Coastal Carolina University and an expert on the subject, the first proper wooden boats were built in carvel fashion, that is, from planks that were laid edge to edge to form a smooth outer surface, rather than overlapping as in the form of a lapstrake boat. The planks could then be braced and strengthened inside. In this manner of early shipmaking, the planks were simply stitched together with rope, so even after the Egyptians turned to wooden boats, the demand for cheap and abundant papyrus rope never slackened, as this rope was still a vital part of the building and rigging of wooden vessels.

Herodotus mentioned that the typical plank used in these boats was made of acacia wood and was about 3ft long. In practice, the planks could also be of tamarisk or sycamore fig and they came in all shapes and sizes, which probably allowed for a greater efficiency in the use of the wood. Was this perhaps a sign of conservation of a scarce resource?

With careful fitting and “joggling” (cuts made to prevent slippage along the edges), every piece of planking available could be used. One sketch by Dr. Ward shows a series of planks that were cut in so many ways they resembled a large jigsaw puzzle.

On the wooden boats, cloth sails gradually replaced papyrus sails, though papyrus was still used for caulking (fresh stems pounded into the spaces between the planks once they were fitted and tied together). The lashed-together Egyptian wooden hulls had the advantage on inland waters in that they could easily be partially or completely disassembled for repair, cleaning, or portage. So, when they were confronted with the cataracts of the lower Nile near Aswan, they simply took the boat apart and reassembled it after carrying it around the obstacle.

Easy enough to think about boats and building them out of wood, but unlike papyrus, wood was never a commodity to lay hands on without paying through the nose. Two famous experts on ancient Egyptian boats, Börn Landström and Prof. Ward, felt that in ancient Egypt wood for building early boats was available from local trees. But once these virgin forests were cut, regeneration of the trees would be quite slow since the climate had become much drier—a situation perhaps made worse by the intensive cutting of trees. As a result, wood for boat-building would become even scarcer. Thorben Larsen, a Danish economist and ecologist, said, “As far back as 4,500 years ago we hear complaints that acacia wood for boatbuilding had to be brought in from deepest Nubia, on the present Sudanese-Egyptian border.” And by the reign of Sneferu (2550 BC), a fleet of more than forty ships was commissioned to bring cedarwood logs from the Levant into Egypt.

Vivi Täckholm, co-author of the book Flora of Egypt and who devoted most of her life to studying the flora of Egypt and inspired botanists in Egypt for some fifty years, noted that flagpoles were also in great demand as well as masts, and since Egypt lacked conifers such as pine or hemlock, they all had to be imported. Add to this the early requirements of large-diameter wooden posts for early temples, wood for furniture manufacture and house-building, and we can see why Phoenician traders found the profits so worthwhile. So good, in fact, that the famous Lebanese cedar forests were devastated to meet Egypt’s demand.

Thus the changeover from the reed boats of the early Water World to the wooden boats of pharaonic times had a negative effect on the forest resources of neighboring countries. It is worth noting also that at this point in history the race had begun to provide boat timber for the burgeoning navies of the world, a race that extended later throughout Europe and Britain and did not abate until the Bessemer process cheapened the cost of steel in 1855. From then on wooden hulls and sailing masts became things of the past, but by then the damage to the Old World forests had been done.

* * *

The development of river transport and the papyrus boat industry in Egypt ranked as one of the most important industries, alongside papermaking and agricultural production. Boats also came to play a large part in myths, legends, religious ceremonies, and pageants, as expected from people whose passage into the next world would be accomplished by boat, virtual or real. Accordingly, much importance was assigned to keeping boats close at hand, especially as one approached the end of this life. And of course the ideal boat to own was one made of the sacred sedge—a condition that was true even after wooden boats became de rigueur for the powers that be. There was always a soft spot for papyrus boats throughout the population, and especially among those people who couldn’t afford wooden boats.

Papyrus was used as a motif in countless designs and featured often in ancient Egyptian art, but most famously it was mentioned on the Narmer Palette, the siltstone slab that dates from 3000 BC. One of the more cryptic symbols on the palette is an A-shaped object, which caused consternation when it was interpreted as evidence of a pyramid thousands of years before the pyramids were built in Giza. It turns out to be simply the hieroglyph for “be prepared,” a glyph based on the papyrus flotation devices worn by hunters when harpooning hippos. A more common version without the cross brace was used by boatmen as an item required of every small-boat owner in the U.S. by the Coast Guard: the PFD, or personal flotation device.

As usual, we can look to the Egyptians for the first of its kind, and not surprisingly these first life preservers were made out of papyrus. The green stems bent into a loop and tied behind, leaving a head and shoulder hole, became the simplest and most effective kind of buoyancy device. Presumably, a good bow-man never manned the prow without one of these lifesavers. Appropriately, both papyrus boats of Thor Heyerdahl, the Ra I and II, were equipped with them.

Thus the Water World of ancient Egypt was a great place and time for invention and innovation, and it excelled as a showplace for skills, crafts, and the ingenuity of early man. By far the most ingenious item that emerged from that period was rope, without which building boats and houses would have been more difficult, not to mention the erection of monuments for which Egypt is remembered in later times.

Excerpted from “Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today's Water Wars” by John Gaudet. Copyright © 2014 by John Gaudet. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.

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