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Thursday, March 12, 2020

A Visit to the Papyrus Factory

As a visitor to the Egyptian National Museum downtown, you might wander in to a room on the second floor that displays the history of writing materials.
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Here you will see ancient papyrus on display.  This is the original version of paper as created by the Egyptians several thousand years ago.  They used it for some very attractive artistic paintings as well as hieroglyphic scripts.

You won't have to venture far outside the museum to find some modern papyrus paintings for sale.  A couple of years ago, this gentleman was waiting just beyond the museum exit for potential customers.

There is a plethora of papyrus shops or "papyrus museums" near the pyramids and downtown near Tahrir Square.  Quality varies.

There has long been a high-quality papyrus shop in the big bazaar, Khan El-Khalili.  Linda bought our copy of "The Carpet Merchant" there about 30 years ago.   About fifteen years ago, the go-to place for quality papyrus was a bit off the beaten path near the Street of the Tentmakers close to Bab Zuwayla.  It is mentioned here in the Lonely Planet guide to Egypt from 2008.
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The sign for the shop is still on display, but the shop is long gone.
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Fortunately, one of the areas top "touts" frequently seems to find us whenever we pass through the area.  This gentleman who has assured us that he "is not a sketchy dude," knows where this old Papyrus shop has relocated.

He took us there last year.  It appears that the dearth of tourists following the revolution has forced the shop into a "low rent" facility.

The product inside was still of good quality but sales appeared meager.  A big part of the appeal of the Delta Papyrus Center was their ability to paint your name in heiroglyphics on your purchase.  This was enabled by a sweet, nearly blind artist in residence.

I was disappointed to find that the artist passed away a few years ago.

"The place" for papyrus in Cairo today is actually right down the street from our condo.  Golden Eagle Papyrus began a quality business a number of years back.

The owner of the shop struck pure gold when he negotiated a deal to bring in Chinese tourists several years ago.  As their numbers have grown remarkably, so has his shop and business.  This year, of course, things have changed.  The usual ten or twelve buses parked in front of the shop have diminished to one or two - and there is not a Chinese tourist to be found.

Inside the shop there are amazing varieties of painting on papyrus.  Some of these even glow in the dark.
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I call that last corner the Christian section.

The sales pitch for papyrus always comes with a demonstration of how the underlying papyrus "canvas" is made.  Stalks are peeled, soaked and sliced, pieces ore laid out in a checkerboard grid and pressure is applied.
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All of which brings us to the burning question, "where do the artists reside that produce these?  Inquiring minds want to know.  And Linda would like to meet some and I want pictures!  Over the past few years we have heard rumors that the painters reside at the Fayoum Oasis.  We have inquired there but not found them.

Then, this year, we heard a rumor that there was a group of them at a tiny village in the Nile Delta called Karamous.  Indeed, we found some magazine articles and Intenet references to the village.

Finding the village itself was more difficult.  It turns out that Google Maps has no reference until one hits upon the spelling of AlQaramous.

Al Qaramous is a village in the Delta about 75 miles to the northeast of our condo.  To get there, you take the Ring Road around the Cairo metropolis, then take the Belbeis Desert Road to Zagazig (Don't you just love that town name?) and then follow instructions from the knowledgeable lady inside your phone (GPS), who knows the rest of the way.  While the trip is only 75 miles, plan on two and a half hours - the "rest of the way" will be slow going.

The route follows one of the many Nile branches through the delta and offers views of people, plants and animals.  These are dovecotes (pigeon coops) across the water.

Ramadan is coming up in about six weeks and it is time to start thinking about stocking up on camel meat for iftar (the fast breaking meal).  These camels are blissfully unaware of their comrade's fate inside the tent to the left.

Upon reaching Al Qaramou, GPS led us through some very narrow streets and an active farmer's market to the town post office.  Some of the market merchants had to pull back their displays to let us pass as only motorcycles and tuk-tuks seem to normally traverse the course at this time of day.

Before we actually reached the Al Qaramous post office destination, a couple of passersby directed us to a nearby farm field growing the papyrus plants.

The field of papyrus plants was undergoing inundation, the irrigation method of choice for the past few thousand years.  One of the familiar putt-putt pumps was transferring water into the field from a secondary canal.
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We headed up a narrow dirt road and found this brick "factory" building with several hands at work.

Two ladies behind the building were peeling papyrus stalks and eagerly welcomed us to the neighborhood.

Inside, we were given a tour of the water tanks.  Here Linda checks the inside of one making "black papyrus."  The remainder of the tanks were uncovered.
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In the corner was a press, much like the scale models we had seen in papyrus shops in the city.

We headed out into the field to get a closer look at the plants growing in the field.  They were much taller than we imagined - many rising to ten feet above the ground.

Elsewhere in town, a load of papyrus stalks moved on a cart, much as in ancient times.
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Alas, we found no artists painting on papyrus.  We talked to one resident on the edge of town who told us that the painting operations had all moved in to Cairo near Pyramids street.  Perhaps they are just keeping the painters hidden away in some vast conspiracy to thwart seekers of a good discount?  We don't know the answer but will keep looking.

The trip was well worth the drive.  Now we needed to find a place for lunch.

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