Meir Bar-Ilan

Places and Dates

Papyrus, the writing surface named after the plant from which it is made, was manufactured as early as the first Egyptian dynasty, circa 3100 BCE. The emergence of writing and the concomitant use of papyrus seem to be an necessary outcome of the imperial bureaucracy. Papyrus was invariably used by the Egyptians until the 9th-11th centuries CE, that is, for 4000 years.

It was no later than the 20th century BCE when Papyrus was first exported to Syria. Later on it found its way to other peoples that developed writing, such as the Greeks. The majority of the extant papyri have been discovered in Egypt, where they survived thanks to the dry climate. Papyri have also been found in Asia and Europe. Only few fragments of papyri from the classic period have been found in Greece, though dozens of drawings of rolls and papyri appear on vases of the same period. These drawings supplement the textual sources with many details of classical and hellenistic Greek book-culture.

That biblical literature was originally written on papyrus (rather than on parchment) is evident from archaeological finds and textual analysis. In wadi Murbaat (near the Dead Sea) a papyrus has been found from the 7th century BCE, and another one, dating from the 4th century BCE, has been found above Jericho. The imprints of papyri fibers have been found on the underside of some bullae (such as the one bearing the inscription, "li- Gedalyahu asher al ha-bayit"). These findings support the scholarly claim that the "books" mentioned in the Bible (Jer 36; 15,16; Ezek 2,8-3,3) were actually written on papyrus.

Over 800 scrolls have been found in Qumran, of which more than 60 (8%) are papyrus scrolls. The Jewish sages disqualified Biblical scrolls written on papyri as unfit for the ritual (see Mishnah, Meg 2:2), a prohibition which was not observed by the Egyptian Jews.

In the Byzantine period, papyrus was manufactured in Palestine. According to the Jewish mystical literature of the era, as well as the "Testament of Abraham" (probably composed in Egypt), in the heavenly administration human deed are written on pinax and on papyrus, from which one can infer that the same applies to the more earthly administration.


Basically, the papyrus-manufacturing process, as accurately described by Pliny, has not changed in thousands of years. The Papyrus product was made by tearing off the 'skin' of the papyrus reed. The strips thus formed were first beaten and dried in the sun and then were laid lengthwise and crosswise to attain strength, perhaps with the aid of some glue (made of plants). Finally, the papyrus was stretched and smoothed to be fit for use. There seem to be slight differences in the manufacture of papyrus, depending on when and where in Egypt it was made.

For practical purposes, the papyrus was limited to a standard size running 47 cm in length at the most (29-33 cm on the average), and 22 cm in width. The total length of the papyrus scroll, consisting of 20 'pages', amounted to some 4.5 meters.

The dependence on a single raw material, a plant that grew mainly in Egypt, determined the borders of its manufacture and had a significant effect on its cost when exported from its place of origin.

The Egyptian embargo on exporting papyrus at the end of the 7th century CE led the way to parchment, and later on to 'modern' paper, the successor to the papyrus. 'Ground' paper (the predecessor of modern paper) was invented in China in the second century CE, but reached western Asia only after the Muslim conquest of Turkistan in 751. After the secrets of manufacturing the 'ground' paper (from a selection of plants) were disclosed, paper gradually replaced papyrus for economic reasons. In Egypt, the manufacturing of papyrus continued till the end of the 11th century. Nowadays it is manufactured on a small scale, merely as a tourist attraction.

Scribal Technique

The main instrument of the scribe was the pen, kalamos, a reed that was cut to some 15 cm and whose end was chewed to form a brush-like edge. The scribe had several pens for various purposes, depending on the width of the script and its color. The ancient Egyptian scribe used several colors (with organic and mineral bases), because writing hieroglyphs was closely connected to drawing. In the course of time, the number of the scribe's colors was reduced to two: black and red. The ink-well included a few pens, two dry inks, and a small container of water to prepare the ink for use.

The ancient scribe usually wrote (on one side of the papyrus only) while standing, or in a kneeling posture, without the aid of a desk (as does his modern Jewish-Yemenite counterpart). In the second millenium BCE, some Egyptian scribes began to use desks. In western culture, the desk became an essential accessory only in the beginning of the Middle-Ages.

Usually a scribe worked together with other scribes, who were either his equals, official scribes like himself, or of different ranks and subordinate to the chief scribe. Such group writing served several purposes: to write in two (and more) languages, to write from dictation, writing by a whole family of scribes (or 'guild'), or for apprenticeship reasons.

The discovery of papyri gave birth to the science of papyrology, which has immensely contributed to our knowledge of the ancient world.


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last updated: December 4, 1995