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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

5.0 13
by John Gaudet

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At the center of the most vital human-plant relationship in history, Papyrus evokes the mysteries of the ancient world while holding the key to the world’s wetlands and atmospheric stability.

From ancient Pharos to 21st Century water wars, papyrus is a unique plant that is still one of the fastest growing plant species on


At the center of the most vital human-plant relationship in history, Papyrus evokes the mysteries of the ancient world while holding the key to the world’s wetlands and atmospheric stability.

From ancient Pharos 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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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)
-Peter H. Raven
“A versatile plant that has played a huge ecological and economic role, papyrus is brought into focus by John Gaudet in this outstanding book – a fascinating read, an enlightening story.”
Bob Brier
“Bravo! Not only does Papyrus tell you everything about papyrus, it is a great read. The section on how to build a papyrus boat is hard to put down! The explanation of just how crucial papyrus was to ancient Egypt's development is masterfully and convincingly told. I love the illustrations. They explained tomb painting I have been looking at for 40 years in ways I never imagined.”
Jean-Daniel Stanley
“A fascinating account of the plant that provided the world with paper for the first four thousand years of its history. I learned a lot from this book, not only about papyrus but also about how wetlands can serve as filters for waste-water and how marshes and tropical swamps can help conserve valuable water. Lively and well written.”
Alexander McCall Smith
“This fascinating and beautifully written book is an absolute eye opener into the extraordinary world of papyrus. John Gaudet has a remarkable story to tell, and he tells it extremely well. This is a wonderful, enlightening book with an important message for those concerned with the fragile ecology of our world.”
Peter H. Raven
“A versatile plant that has played a huge ecological and economic role, papyrus is brought into focus by John Gaudet in this outstanding book – a fascinating read, an enlightening story.”
Library Journal
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
Kirkus Reviews
The hardy reed that stood at the center of ancient Egyptian civilization can foster sustainable growth in the 21st century, asserts ecologist Gaudet (Island of Pigs, 2011, etc.).The papyrus serves as a focus for the author's broad exploration of the vital role that wetlands (including papyrus swamps) play in preserving and replenishing the global environment. Indeed, the plant's history is not especially well-conveyed in the book's scattershot opening chapters, which confusingly mix a history of papyrus use and mythology in ancient Egypt with tales of 19th- and 20th-century European explorers in Africa, plus such present-day swamp-dwellers as Louisiana's Cajuns. None of it serves any clear purpose, but in the much better chapters that follow, Gaudet hits his stride, chronicling decades of misguided dam-building and swamp-draining that, combined with accelerating urbanization, have created horrific pollution problems and water shortages across Africa and the Middle East. Gaudet is not a doomsayer, however; he points to such hopeful signs for the future as Israel's Huleh Nature Reserve, which partially restored a wetland area shortsightedly drained in the 1950s, bringing many wild birds (and tourists) back to the area. Other positive developments include regional cooperation on the Transaqua Project, intended to revive the dying wetlands of Lake Chad, and the Nile Basin Initiative, to protect the water resources of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Papyrus plays an important role since papyrus swamps can inexpensively filter polluted water and slow water loss from evaporation. Yet many obstacles remain—e.g., witness the 22-year civil war that erupted in part over a bypass canal that would have drained the Sudd, a vast complex of wetlands that nourishes rural South Sudan, to line the pockets of North Sudanese businessmen and provide more water for urbanized Egypt, which killed off its own papyrus swamps a millennium ago.The challenges are daunting, but Gaudet's detailed, undogmatic account of multiple attempts to counter overdevelopment with better practices inspires cautious optimism.
Colin Davies
“One of the ways that papyrus changed the world was by providing the model, both structural and spatial, for the first temple complexes. The history of western architecture begins with the papyrus plant. John Gaudet tells a fascinating tale of the transmutation of vegetable into mineral, of graceful stems and umbels into the first stone columns, and of gladed swamps into sacred precincts. Architects and architectural historians should read this book and learn more about the beautiful and useful plant that inspired the earliest works of monumental architecture.”

Product Details

Pegasus Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.00(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

John Gaudet, a professional ecologist has worked with the
U.S. government and carried out research under grants from the National
Geographic Society. As an ecologist and primary environmental advisor he is now a writer and consultant. His work has appeared in the Washington Post and he remains active in African, agricultural, and conservation/environmental agencies. John lives in northern Virginia. Visit his website at http://www.fieldofreeds.com.

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Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today's Water Wars 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
“Gaudet’s book is a comprehensive tour de force and a page turner!  It is no mean achievement to present such a mine of information in an accessible manner!  The humorous moments helped clearly showing his credentials as a botanist and not a zoologist.  On every page there was something new and interesting to learn. One of my aunts lives in Africa. Until the 1980s she had papyrus growing at the bottom of her garden bordering Lake Victoria. Lung fish (mamba) were plentiful but revered by many living around the lake. Tilapia was also plentiful and one could just stand on shore and see them large enough for eating!  Crested cranes used to nest between clumps of papyrus.  In the 1990s, the papyrus had disappeared and so had the lung fish and tilapia.  Water hyacinth, the scourge of the fisherman, had taken over and fishermen had to go far afield overnight in search of Nile perch for the Kampala and Jinja markets.  All this supports your conclusions about the ecological value of papyrus.  Thanks for writing this book.  By the way it would make a great gift for anyone interested in Nature, Egypt, Africa or birds.”
Katheka More than 1 year ago
Here is a concise and very readable history of papyrus, a swamp plant used for paper in ancient Egypt, yet also the sustainable solution to the water pollution crisis looming in Africa. A highly informative book and an insight into the use of the swamps as filters. The ideal book for any friend of nature. (Dr. Richard Ford, Professor of History and International Development, Clark University)
MakuluBoss More than 1 year ago
Highly informative and very readable. This book has a great deal in it about Egypt and the use of the swamps as filters in Africa. Would make a great present for Christmas to any friend of nature." "Well worth getting this book. Lots in it about the ancient plant, paper and boats, but also about the modern swamps, which often serve in Africa as filters of sewage.
Mombasaphil More than 1 year ago
This is the same plant used for paper in ancient Egypt. It is now earmarked to filter swamps in Africa. It is very informative and a great read for anyone interested in Egypt, history or nature. 5..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Who better to write a book on a fascinating and threatened natural resource in Africa than John Gaudet? His wealth of experience as an environmental officer for Africa at USAID and his dual command of the biological and social sides of conservation make his authority second to none.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Plant the Changed the World reflects this botanist's lifetime fascination with a plant that is intimately connected to our past and to the future of Africa. Full of surprises, it has a great deal in it about Egypt and traces the use of the papyrus plant through history, while also taking readers on a journey to show them how papyrus swamps have been and continue to be an integral part of Africa's environment. The modern use of the swamps as filters may help prevent greater pollution of Africa's great inland waters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Many people have eagerly awaited this book and I'm pleased to report that it does not disappoint; this is the definitive, intriguing account of one of the world's most fascinating plants, consummately written by its most distinguished expert, Dr John Gaudet.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great book about the ancient water world of Egypt and the way people got along using local sustainable resources for thousands of years. Gaudet uses the antique world as a springboard to dramatize the use of wetlands as filter swamps to combat pollution in modern times.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Your book is beautifully written for the purpose intended.  As I read it, I thought on “Silent Spring”, and who knows, it may come to be appreciated in the  same way.  It is a really good read;  simple and elegantly fashioned and sructured.  Reading it was as easy as boating down the Nile because it was in no way pedantic.  Rather, It was delightfully informative.  The book persuaded me to curl up in my green “comfy” chair, and enjoy it for some three days.
RalphH1 More than 1 year ago
The author, John Gaudet, can flat-out write, and his passion for the subject comes through in every line. While most people have't spent a lot of time worrying about the future of papyrus, the author has, and he writes about the past and future engagingly. The book is leavened with anecdotes which I enjoyed, and which made reading it fun. I hope it gets the attention it deserves, because a world with healthy papyrus systems will be a healthier and environmentally sounder one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"A masterpiece in economic and historical botany..." Nature magazine called it a "swirling anthropological and environmental narrative!" and Harvard University's Belfer Center voted it the Innovation Book of the Week...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
John Gaudet has written an ambitious, lively book that sets the tale of Papyrus within the context of ancient and modern cultures, ecology and colonial exploration in Africa. Using original and secondary sources and illustrations, he brings his material to life with personal anecdotes and experiences from his decades living in East Africa. Entertaining and educational!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Papyrus, the Plant that Changed the World is a great learning experience for those interested in the future of Africa and the world. Modern and Classic architecture fashioned after papyrus plants and simple reed huts? Is it possible? Gaudet makes a case for just that in a book loaded with ideas. He also deals with birdlife in danger. One of the major flyways for millions of birds is in the Rift Valley. And the Sudd, the last major natural freshwater fisheries in the world is a major world habitat that is threatened. Luckily, Gaudet is here to help.