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Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the WorldPapyrus: The Plant that Changed the World

John Gaudet

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Why I wrote this book

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. 


Papyrus, a book written with passion, knowledge and experience, starts with a review of the history of the papyrus plant and especially the important part it played in the economic life of one of the earliest superpowers–Egypt. The Egyptians used papyrus in boat construction, handicrafts and rope manufacture; and, most importantly, to make paper. In the second part begins the unravelling of the complex issues that surround swamps and wetlands, past, present & future. Water thirsty nations look upon swamps as a source of additional water supplies – those dependent on the swamps for their own livelihoods are generally vulnerable to the depredations of those with greater resources.

The book answers the questions: What are the ecological consequences of draining a swamp? and What are the benefits and costs?  In the last part of the book, the value of maintaining swamps is laid out along with an explanation of the ability of papyrus swamps to filter pollutants out of water cheaply and effectively.

The book ends with a plea to establish the necessary social, political and economic changes to prevent existing swamps from being drained, and to reestablish swamps in places where they can cleanse polluted water in lakes, rivers and estuaries of Africa.


 “Bravo! Not only does The Plant That Changed the World 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.”  -Bob Brier, Egyptologist known as "Mr. Mummy," author, TV host, Great Courses "The History of Ancient Egypt," Senior Research Fellow at Long Island University

“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.”  -Jean-Daniel Stanley, Senior Scientist Emeritus, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.“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.  -Peter H. Raven, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis

“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.”  -Colin Davies, Former Editor of the Architects’ Journal and Professor of Architectural Theory at London Metropolitan University; author of  Thinking about Architecture and Key Houses of the Twentieth Century

 “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." -Alexander McCall Smith, bestselling author of the Botswana Mma Ramotswe series, No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, and Author of the Year, Great Britain 

“The hardy reed that stood at the center of ancient Egyptian civilization can foster sustainable growth in the 21st century, asserts ecologist Gaudet…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.” - Kirkus Review, April 8, 2014

“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.”  - Publishers Weekly, April 20, 2014

"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. 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) he hits his stride. Valuable to those interested in water ecology, wetlands management, and the green movement." -Library Journal, May 15, 2014 

Harvard University Belfer Center, Innovation Book of the Week:  Papyrus The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today's Water Wars By John Gaudet -"A masterpiece in economic and historical botany.  Congratulations on a great Book!"—Prof. Calestous Juma, Director Science, Technology, and Globalization Project, May 26, 2014   

“Is there anything that papyrus can’t do? The tall, tassel-topped reed can be made into boats, mats, baskets, ropes, and, of course, paper. But its greatest usefulness may be serving as a natural water treatment plant, a role that occupies much of Gaudet’s presentation of a plant he has intensively studied. Describing various regions of Africa where papyrus swamps still exist, Gaudet explains their ecological effect of keeping water clean, their potential to ameliorate pollution, and the contextual politics of water use. Along the Nile River, at Lake Tanganyika and environs, and further south on the Zambezi and Okavango Rivers, Gaudet touts the potential of papyrus to contribute to solutions of neighboring countries’ conflicts over water. But papyrus-the-peacemaker is not what most readers associate with the plant; it is ancient Egypt, with which Gaudet begins his book. Noting its former range (little papyrus grows in modern Egypt), Gaudet ambles from properties of papyrus that underlie its usefulness to its ubiquitous depiction in pharonic art and monumental architecture. Offering abundant information, Gaudet’s combination of environmental advocacy and botanical objectivity forms a unique resource about a unique organism.” – Booklist, June 1, 2014

About the Author

John Gaudet

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.

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272 pages


John Gaudet



Publication date

15th June 2014

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