Cover image for Papyrus : the plant that changed the world, from ancient Egypt to today's water wars
Papyrus : the plant that changed the world, from ancient Egypt to today's water wars
Gaudet, John J., author.
Personal Author:
First Pegasus Books cloth edition.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Pegasus Books, 2014.
Physical Description:
xix, 300 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps ; 24 cm
Offers an examination of the papyrus plant, looking at the important role it played in ancient Egyptian culture as a source of paper, as well as its unique properties that could help combat ecological and social problems in the modern world.
Ancient Egypt and papyrus, the eternal marriage -- Ancient heritage -- When swamps are more than just wet places -- Papyrus swamps, the last frontier.
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Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QK495.C997 G38 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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From ancient Pharaohs to 21st Century water wars, papyrus is a unique plant that is still one of the fastest growing plant species on earth. It produces its own "soil"--a peaty, matrix that floats on water--and its stems inspired the fluted columns of the ancient Greeks. In ancient Egypt, the papyrus bounty from the Nile delta provided not just paper for record keeping--instrumental to the development of civilization--but food, fuel and boats. Disastrous weather in the 6th Century caused famines and plagues that almost wiped out civilization in the west, but it was papyrus paper in scrolls and codices that kept the record of our early days and allowed the thread of history to remain unbroken. The sworn enemy of oblivion and the guardian of our immortality it came to our rescue then and will again.
Today, it is not just a curious relic of our ancient past, but a rescuing force for modern ecological and societal blight. In an ironic twist, Egypt is faced with enormous pollution loads that forces them to import food supplies, and yet papyrus is one of the most effective and efficient natural pollution filters known to man. Papyrus was the key in stemming the devastation to the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River from raging peat fires (that last for years), heavy metal pollution in the Zambezi River Copperbelt and the papyrus laden shores of Lake Victoria--which provides water to more than 30 million people--will be crucial as the global drying of the climate continues. 8 page insert, illustrations throughout.

Author Notes

A Fulbright Scholar to both India and Malaya, John Gaudet is a writer and practicing ecologist. His early research on papyrus, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, took him to Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, and Ethiopia. A trained ecologist with a PhD from University of California at Berkeley, he is the author of Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World, and his writing has appeared in Science, Nature, Ecology, the Washington Post, Salon and the Huffington Post. He lives in McLean, Virgina.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Is there anything that papyrus can't do? The tall, tassel-topped reed can be made into boats, mats, baskets, ropes, and, of course, paper. But its greatest usefulness may be serving as a natural water treatment plant, a role that occupies much of Gaudet's presentation of a plant he has intensively studied. Describing various regions of Africa where papyrus swamps still exist, Gaudet explains their ecological effect of keeping water clean, their potential to ameliorate pollution, and the contextual politics of water use. Along the Nile River, at Lake Tanganyika and environs, and further south on the Zambezi and Okavango Rivers, Gaudet touts the potential of papyrus to contribute to solutions of neighboring countries' conflicts over water. But papyrus-the-peacemaker is not what most readers associate with the plant; it is ancient Egypt, with which Gaudet begins his book. Noting its former range (little papyrus grows in modern Egypt), Gaudet ambles from properties of papyrus that underlie its usefulness to its ubiquitous depiction in pharaonic art and monumental architecture. Offering abundant information, Gaudet's combination of environmental advocacy and botanical objectivity forms a unique resource about a unique organism.--Taylor, Gilbert Copyright 2010 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Well-known as a writing material in ancient Egypt, papyrus had many more uses, according to ecologist Gaudet in this encyclopedic history of the swamp-dwelling plant. Indeed, Gaudet maintains that Egyptian civilization, even before writing emerged, might not have developed without this extraordinary productive plant: the ancients used it for homes, boats, rope, baskets, fuel, and even food; it grows so densely over water that small villages were built on it. Papyrus motifs adorned their paintings, temples and tombs, amulets, and jewelry. Gaudet delivers an exhaustive description of the ancient technical processes that turned stems and rhizomes into daily necessities. Today, however, paper, wood, plastic, and cloth have replaced papyrus, and the swamps in which it grows are being drained worldwide. This process has had disastrous ecological results, as the plant acts as a filter to stop soil erosion, safeguard ground water, and support fish, birds, mammals, and, ultimately, man. The book's second half focuses on efforts to reverse this massive ecological damage by restoring papyrus swamps. Successes are dramatic but limited, and as with many accounts of environmental destruction, readers may struggle to share the writer's optimism. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

After arguing that papyrus was the cornerstone of -Ancient Egypt's tremendous, long-running success owing to its versatility as both crop and habitat, trained ecologist Gaudet (The Iron Snake) proposes that the world learns from this and employs papyrus swamps to solve modern crises of pollution, subsidence, water scarcity, and flagging economies in several African nations. While the author's history moves too fleetingly and gets jumbled, the underlying idea of the value of papyrus to Egyptian culture, politics, and economy is astute. Further, the lack of an obvious thesis leaves the reader lost at first. This changes when Gaudet transitions to wetland conservation-the benefits of swamps as filters for water rejuvenation, creation of habitats for endangered fauna and flora, and papyrus's rare advantages in these areas (its metabolism makes it extremely productive). If the reader is patient, the full force of the argument will be apparent by the end. -VERDICT This will not really appeal to readers of Ancient Egypt, but it will have value to those interested in water ecology, wetlands management, and the green movement.-Evan M. Anderson, Kirkendall P.L., Ankeny, IA (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Disguised as a book about a single species, this work actually illuminates large swaths of issues from the ecological importance of wetlands to competition for water in developing Africa and the lifestyles of swamp-dwelling peoples. Along the way, Gaudet (ecologist) introduces readers to the history of water projects throughout Africa, including the Aswan High Dam and the fight over the future of the Sudd. Having lived in Africa and the Middle East and studied papyrus in those regions, the author is well versed in the interplay between environmental issues and social ones. Poor development and water use have harmed many parts of Africa, but the ultimately hopeful message found here is that wetlands, incorporating plants such as papyrus, have the capacity to mitigate and even repair that damage. Though a working knowledge of African geography would benefit readers, Gaudet provides enough background information and maps to pave the way, including eight pages of color diagrams. A solid index and suggestions for further reading help balance an occasionally confusing organization of topics. A good addition to collections in botany, hydrology, African history or development, environmental sciences, and ornithology. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. --Christin Helen Chenard, Plymouth State University

Table of Contents

Prologue Ancient Egypt and Papyrus, the Eternal Marriagep. xiii
Part I Ancient Heritagep. 1
1 First Encounterp. 3
2 Nature's Bountyp. 10
3 Papyrus Boats, the Pride of Ancient Egyptp. 27
4 Rope, the Workhorse of Ancient Egyptp. 38
5 Papyrus Paper, in All the Offices of the Worldp. 44
Part II When Swamps Are. More than Just Wet Placesp. 57
6 The Floating Worldp. 59
7 The Other Marsh Men, an African Perspectivep. 75
8 Sacred Swamps and Temples of Immortalityp. 80
9 The Field of Reeds as a Way of Lifep. 95
10 Swamps Are the Futurep. 101
11 Sarah Starts a. Warp. 113
12 The Revenge of the, Sacred, Sedgep. 125
Part III Papyrus Swamps, the Last Frontierp. 137
13 The Congo, Economic Miracle or Pit of Despairp. 139
14 A Tragic Ironyp. 148
15 The Battle for Lake Victoriap. 157
16 War Along the Nilep. 169
17 It Takes an Army to Save the Suddp. 179
18 Blood Roses, Papyrus, and the Mew Scramble for Africap. 190
19 The Zambezi, the Victorians, and Papyrusp. 212
20 An Unwanted Legacyp. 218
21 The Okavango, Miracle of the Kalaharip. 230
22 Papyrus Blooms Again in the Holy Landp. 240
23 The Rift Valley, a Safe Haven for Birdsp. 251
24 The Egyptian Solutionp. 258
25 2050, The New Deltap. 266
26 Conclusionp. 268
Further Readingp. 273
Acknowledgmentsp. 285
Endnotesp. 287
Indexp. 295