PAPYRUS, also paper reed, common name for a plant of the sedge family. The plant grows about 1 to 3 m (3 to 10 ft) tall and has a woody, aromatic, creeping rhizome. The leaves are long and sharp-keeled, and the upright flowering stems are hairless, soft, and triangular in shape. The lower part of the stem is as thick as a human arm, and at the top is a compound umbel of numerous drooping spikelets, with a whorl of eight leaves. Papyrus grows in Egypt, Ethiopia, the River Jordan valley, and Sicily.
Various parts of the papyrus were used in antiquity for both ornamental and useful purposes, including wreaths for the head, sandals, boxes, boats, and rope. The roots were dried and used as fuel. The pith of the stem was boiled and eaten, but it was used mainly in making papyrus, the sort of paper that was the primary writing material of classical antiquity.
The papyrus of the Egyptians was made of slices of the cellular pith laid lengthways, with other layers criss-crossed over it. The whole was then moistened with water, pressed and dried, and rubbed smooth with ivory or a smooth shell. The sheets of papyrus, varying from about 12.5 by 22.5 cm (5 by 9 in) to about 22.5 by 37.5 cm (9 by 15 in), were made into rolls, probably some 6 to 9 m (20 to 30 ft) in length. The Egyptians wrote on papyrus in regular columns, which in literary prose rarely exceeded 7.6 cm (3 in) in width; in poetry the columns were often wider in order to accommodate the length of the verse.
The Greeks seem to have known papyrus as early as the beginning of the 5th century BC, but the earliest extant Greek papyrus is believed to be the Persae of the poet Timotheus, who lived during the 5th and early 4th century BC. The use of papyrus for literary works continued among the Greeks and Romans to the 4th century AD, when it was superseded by parchment. It was still used for official and private documents until the 8th or 9th century.
Scientific classification: Papyrus belongs to the family Cyperaceae; it is classified as Cyperus papyrus.