Tag Archives: Nile

Papyrus brushes

Not only can you make paper and pens from the papyrus reed, you can make brushes, too! It’s like those Egyptians never needed to go to the art supply store. They just waded into the Nile and grabbed a reed.

As I understand it, you chew on the end of a thin reed until the pith is soft enough to be flexible and absorb ink. You can trim it with a pair of scissors or a sharp knife to get a point.


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Papyrus pens

The papyrus reed can also be made into pens and brushes. For a pen, you need a dried papyrus reed. It’s as hard as wood, and hollow. With a sharp knife you cut a concave section out of the end of the reed, leaving a flexible point. You trim the point to however wide you want your pen-stroke. Then you split the point so it can hold ink.

If you don’t happen to have a papyrus reed handy, for 3 or 4 bucks you can buy a Chinese bamboo calligraphy pen for the same result. https://www.dickblick.com/products/richeson-bamboo-reed-pens/?clickTracking=true&wmcp=pla&wmcid=items&wmckw=04898-1002&gclid=Cj0KCQiAy579BRCPARIsAB6QoIYuyXrsjCnLqNxnS8MFwI7cqciXBY3gUUKJtTXJTXoH3aE-VftbgEsaAk5-EALw_wcB


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How come Egyptian hieroglyphics are recognizable to us, but Sumerian cuneiform isn’t?

Two words: art supplies.

The Sumerian scribes used a stylus to make marks in soft clay. A stylus pokes indentations into clay, but not strokes. They were limited to wedge-shapes because if they’d tried to draw a curve there would be a build-up of clay on one side of the stroke, like when a snow plow clears a road.

The Egyptians wrote on paper—to be specific, papyrus (pah PIE roos). Papyrus is a reed that grows around the Nile River delta. They found that you can soak the pith (the insides) of the reeds until it becomes soft, then pound it flat. The flattened strips are woven into a sheet, pressed and left to dry. When the sheet’s dry you can write or draw on it.

You cut the skin off a papyrus reed with a knife, leaving the pith. The pith is cut into strips.

Soak the pith strips in water.

The strips are rolled flat.

The strips are woven into a sheet and left to dry under some heavy weight.

Ta-da! It’s a sheet of papyrus!

(I was right—the papyrus reed is triangular in cross-section. I hadn’t lost my marbles after all.)

Here are two scribes, one writes in cuneiform and one writes in hieroglyphics.

Watch some experts make papyrus:

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The first pharaoh

Here’s Menes wearing the crown of Lower Egypt.

Here’s Menes wearing the crown of Upper Egypt.

Here’s Menes wearing the crown of a united Egypt.

Egypt was two kingdoms: the Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Sometime around 3100 bc, a ruler named Menes united the Egyptians into a single kingdom. Let’s face it, there was a bit of violence involved to achieve this unity. All Egyptians were polytheistic—they worshiped a bunch of gods. Menes declared himself the living incarnation of the god Horus. That was a clever way to give his kingship the stamp of authority. Menes promoted his divinity by publishing inscriptions that could be read throughout the new kingdom. The writing system used was ‘divine words’—hieroglyphics.


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Down by the river

The Egyptians were able to farm the land next to the Nile because it flooded regularly every year. When the water receded, it left behind a sludge—silt—of dead fish and plants which turn into nutrients. Crops love those yummy nutrients. The Egyptians figured out how to irrigate—they built levees and dams and canals to direct water from the Nile into their farm fields. Irrigation made farming even easier. Farming could be done by fewer people while still producing enough food to feed everybody. People who weren’t farmers could do other jobs which paid money or produced goods so they could buy or barter for food. This is how an economy begins.

Did I say growing food is easy? It’s pretty back-breaking for the poor slobs who do the work. I don’t know what their headwear is here, or why it’s brimless. A gourd shell, maybe? The Egyptian sun must have been unrelenting.

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Meanwhile, in Egypt…

Crescent moon

Crescent roll

I was telling you about the Sumerians and we kind of zoomed ahead to the Persian Empire because I needed to tell you how we are able to translate cuneiform. We skipped over a few thousand years and if I keep doing that this is going to be a really short book. So let’s pause for a moment and drift back to 6,000 bc or so and travel west from Mesopotamia to the northern edge of Africa—to Egypt. Just like the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, people settled along the banks of the Nile River because it was easy to grow food there. In fact, the area that contains all three rivers is known as the Fertile Crescent—where civilization got its start.


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Egyptian calendar

An Egyptian man plows a furrow so the lady can sow seeds into it.

Both the Sumerians and Egyptians had economies that depended on agriculture—they grew crops for their food. If you ever planted tomatoes—or onions, or zucchini, or those two-ton pumpkins you see at the state fair—in a garden, you’ll have seen on the seed packages instructions about when to plant. If you plant your tomatoes too late, the fruit will never ripen in time before the first frost. This is why calendars are so important.

The Egyptians’ planting schedule was built around their river, the Nile. Every year the Nile would flood. After the floodwater receded, it left behind nutrient-rich silt that improved the soil. Egyptian farmers had to plant crops as soon as the Nile receded so they could harvest before the Nile flooded again.

By around 2450 bc the Egyptians had developed a calendar whose year was twelve months. Each month was thirty days long (12 x 30 = 360 days). The year was divided into three seasons—Inundation, when the Nile was flooded (Akhet), Emergence, time to plant the crops (Peret), and Harvest, time to gather the crops (Shemu)—of four months each, with five days added to the end of the year.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Egyptian calendar used Base Sixty for counting the days. I’d like to think they sent a nice thank-you note to the Sumerians.