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Egyptian village struggles to keep ancient papyrus alive

In the village of al-Qaramous, a once thriving economy of harvesting papyrus is being kept alive, but for how long?
The many different designs of papyrus prints available today are created to cater to tourist demand (MEE/Mohamed Osam)

AL-QARAMOUS, Egypt - Thousands of years ago, on the banks of the Nile river in Egypt, a great civilisation arose. The pharaohs documented first-hand descriptions of battles, natural disasters, tales of shipwrecks, financial records, official documents and even religious spells on paper made from papyrus sedges.

Once the papyrus sheets are dry, they can then go to the print shop (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
Today in al-Qaramos, a village north of Cairo in the governorate of Sharqia in the Nile Delta, men go to harvest the papyrus sedge like the ancient Egyptians did centuries ago. Women collect the harvested stems in small workshops based in their homes and they begin the process of transforming them into the final paper product.

It is common for women to turn their homes into workshops (MEE/Mohamed Osam)

According to locals, the story of the village goes back 40 years to 1977, when Egyptian fine arts professor Dr Anas Mustafa decided to grow papyrus in the village. He taught around 200 residents the art of growing papyrus and transforming it from plant to paper. 

Ibrahim is the youngest member of the El Sayed family working in papyrus harvesting and production (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
According to Mohamed El Sayed, one of the papyrus farmers, it took only a few years for the town to become famous for its thriving papyrus economy. He says about 90 percent of residents from the surrounding villages are working in papyrus production. 

The papyrus stems are cut into pieces with different lengths (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
El Sayed, who inherited the craft from his father and grandfather, explains that after harvesting the papyrus stems, they flake the outside green layer by peeling if off with their teeth and cut the white core into slices. Then they are soaked in barrels with caustic soda. 

Children remove the green layer of the papyrus plant using their teeth (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
In order for the slices to soften, they must be left to soak for eight hours. After this step, the slices are placed next to one another to form a sheet. These sheets are then placed in rags and squeezed in an iron press. Finally, they are placed on cardboard and left to dry out in the sun.

Mohamed El Sayed learned the craft from his father and grandfather (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
When the final product is ready after it has been painted in a print shop, it is sold to bazaars in Cairo, Luxor and Sharm EL Sheikh. The cost of the final product of papyrus paper ranges between 20 EGP to 500 EGP ($1-$28). But the plunge in the number of tourists has reduced the demand for papyrus products.  

KarIm, the oldest son in the El Sayed family, carries a tuft of stems for cutting (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
In 2016, the number of tourists plummeted from 9.3 million to 5.4 million, according to official statistics. According to locals, the cultivation of papyrus has dropped from 500 acres to 30 acres or less.

According to locals, today's farmers and producers of papyrus are using the same methods passed down from the ancient Egyptians (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
Years of political turmoil after the 2011 popular uprising, followed by the 2013 military coup and a series of airplane disasters, bombings and attacks have shattered the tourism industry in the country.

After the papyrus stems are harvested, they are cut into pieces before the outside green layer is flaked (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
“We used to hire between five and 10 labourers to work with us besides the family,” says El Sayed, “but now we cannot due to the low demand and poor profits.” The work is now managed entirely by El Sayed's family. Children in the village usually help their parents make the papyrus, when they are not in school.

According to Mohammed's wife, Um Karim, the family used to produce 1,000 sheets on a daily basis, but now they only produce between 50 to 100. 

A woman uses the same methods used by ancient Egyptians to stick the papyrus slices together (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
In a nearby house, there is a small print shop owned by Wagdy Mohamed Abdel Aal, who has been colouring and printing on papyrus sheets since the age of seven. He explains that they depend on two methods to colour papyrus sheets, mainly silkscreen printing or hand painting.

Paint is applied to the papyrus sheet through silk stamps (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
The silkscreen process is the most common printing method, where silk stamps with designs on them allow for near-perfect images. Paint is dropped through and the design is applied to the papyrus sheet. The process is repeated using different colours.

Wagdy Mohamed Abdel Aal shows what the final product will look like (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
According to Abdel Aal, most of his silkscreen stamps were scanned from pharaohs’ paintings found in temples and on old papyrus. They also paint different prints such as Arabic calligraphy on wedding invitations or religious verses. 

Print shop owner Wagdy Mohamed Abdel Aal shows some of the designs he uses in his work (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
Print shops were also affected by the low demand. According to Abdel Aal's estimations, the number of village print shops dropped from 17 before the 2011 revolt to six today. The cost of the final product of papyrus paper ranges between 20 EGP to 500 EGP ($1-$28). 

Despite the absence of governmental support for the industry, traders have attempted to create demand for their products in other ways.  

According to locals, the cultivation of papyrus has dropped from 500 acres to 30 acres or less (MEE/Mohamed Osam)
According to locals, they made a formal proposal to successive governors of the Sharqia governorate to use papyrus in official certificates and documents, such as university diplomas, but only one former governor expressed interest. Dr Reda Abdel Salam promised to consider the proposal before he was removed from his post in 2015.

Abdel Aal is not optimistic about the future and predicts that it may drop again due to the flotation of the Egyptian pound, which raised prices of materials used in production.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition

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