Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pollution in the Gardens of Papyrus

Back in Cairo again dealing with the dust in the air and on every surface; time to think about the amazing degree of air, water and noise pollution in this city, which has to be seen to be believed. Literally it is mind-boggling.

The message is brought home to me in the back streets as I sit in a taxi trapped in smoke-choked air behind a refuse truck for ten to fifteen minutes. Through the haze we watch collectors struggling, trying to clean garbage from back alleys. The task is Herculean with dumpsters small and large full to overflowing. Some line the narrow lanes where the truck cannot go, some have been overturned into the gutters and there is obviously more to come. Lacking the intervention of Hercules, local residents are left with the only thing remaining, hope.
This generates in me a feeling that one must be optimistic and I sympathize with those who have to cope. Despite the fact that the problem seems enormous, the message should come through that it can be done, cleaning up an old city is possible and the payoff is worth it, even if one only looks at the tourist potential.

Models exist now in many parts of the world of city rejuvenation. For example, who ever thought that the Glasgow of the 1980’s would win a prize, but it has. Improvements in the physical environment, quality of life, economic investment and numbers of jobs in that city now brings millions of tourists there. Turning around the local environment in Cairo starts with small changes not obvious on a day-to-day basis.

In this way I note things are starting already. Years ago I dreaded trips to Cairo because the air pollution and the winter-time inversion layer in the city were so strong that it brought tears to my eyes. But this past week I was surprised to find the air is nothing like what it used to be. Although air pollution is still here it’s obvious that something has changed. The first sign is that noted by the cab driver, who points out to me that the old black taxis, clunkers in the real sense, are being replaced by new, more efficient white taxis. He tells me also about improvements in cooking fuels and the use of natural gas, all of which have had an effect. Even though there are more cars, buildings and people, my eyes are less red and breathing is easier.

Still there is a long way to go. To get relief from the daily grime I see Egyptians flocking to open areas. Parks and gardens here are well used. One such is in the middle of the city, the Pharaonic Village on the banks of the Nile. This was supposed be Egypt’s answer to Williamsburg. The plan was to transport tourists through a series of papyrus-lined canals on the banks of which would be models and scenes of daily life in ancient Egypt. The Village now employs over 300 people and shuttles local and foreign tourists through a funky set of displays. They serve as a quick overview of all of Egyptian history, but the scope is too much, to get through 11 mini-museums that cover every aspect of history in Egypt from modern times to Tutankhamen, all in one day, or less, is not possible.

By all accounts it provides locals with a day’s outing along the banks of the river and Jacob Island on the Nile and in many ways resembles the Victorian concept of providing history in a nutshell. In those days one full day in London’s Egyptian Hall or Covent Garden would last you a lifetime. There is also a smattering of village industry and handicrafts, a restaurant and a large gift shop.

One of the major attractions of the Village was supposed to be the papyrus plants started from cuttings that would generate the feeling of being back in old Egypt traveling through the papyrus swamps that were so common in those days. But this has not happened. Despite the drawing of papyrus on the cover page of the map and brochure handed out to visitors, papyrus has not done well along the banks of the canals.

The very dilute, sweet water of ancient times that was common to the Nile until the early 1800’s, when one could still dip a glass from the River and drink it straight, are gone. The Nile now contains concentrated water that borders on being salty. Evaporation, a restriction of flow by the Aswan High Dam, agricultural, urban and sewage drainage have all had the effect of making it worse. The River is now polluted to the point that it is more like estuarine water with higher chloride and so favors the aggressive aquatic grass Phragmites, a tall, slim reed with plume-like flowering head that loves this kind of water. But Phragmites though picturesque in its own way is not the same as papyrus.

This leaves developers of the Village stuck with a problem, how to encourage the growth of papyrus? While they work out a solution, I suggested to them that they set up an ecological garden in which they purposely fed sewage into a small papyrus swamp. The goal would be to show visitors how papyrus could perhaps be encouraged by higher nutrients from sewage, which might allow it to outgrow the chloride effect. If it does thrive, grow bigger, faster or becomes more robust, it will attract bird life and demonstrate the value of pollution filtration by wetlands as well as recreate the ancient habitat.

This would be a small effort, almost nothing in the face of the larger pollution problems here, but it would at least be more in keeping with the new interest in ecology by modern travelers. It would also provide a model to the public and the government as to how small sustainable efforts can be of value, the kind of effort that can be scaled up if it works. At the least it will show people what can be done by thinking globally and acting locally.

My next posts will be catch-up as I head back to snow-bound country in time for Christmas in the USA, brrrrrr.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Alexandria and How Papyrus Helped Build Western Civilization

I stood yesterday on the spot of sidewalk in Alexandria where it is said that the Ptolemys built the Great Library of Alexandria. They began their project not long after Alexander the Great founded the city in 332 BC.

The city, located in the Nile Delta, was then surrounded by the marshes that had been the Pharaoh’s coveted and profitable source of the paper sedge, papyrus. A unique local resource, papyrus was used as the raw material for millions of scrolls and correspondence worldwide for thousands of years. It was also a plant worshipped by the ancient Egyptians.

The Ptolemys realized the potential of the swamps, they also saw how they could use them to fulfill their goal of housing a collection of every known book. Perhaps they caught the collector’s bug from Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle; in any event, they began their collection of books in earnest. In those days that meant scrolls made from papyrus.

They intended that Alexandria would become the intellectual center of the world, and in the process they would make money. In Alexandria they kept hundreds of scribes busy, as the Library sent out lists that led to exchanges and more additions. The Ptolemys had a policy of confiscating any book scroll found on boats calling in at the port. After copying them for the Library, they often kept the original returning the copy to the chagrin of many. As a result, a thriving business flourished here in exporting books.

Not only did they make use of the plant for paper, it was also cut and dried to provide fuel for the baths of the city, an equally important function, as the baths ranked high on the list of necessities of life for the Romans. Many of the large bath complexes in Rome had libraries for the patrons, it's possible that in Alexandria both functions of the plant came together.

Although nothing is left of the Great Library there are ruins of a smaller one at the Serapeum in the west of the city. I was told that the large number of niches cut into the rock of these ruins represent original shelves for the papyrus scrolls.

It was a letdown then to find that papyrus and its history is not well represented in the new Library, the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina. This library was built on a plot close to where the Great Library stood, and it does serve, as did the original, as a place of study, a venue for conferences and a site for art and science initiatives. It also emulates the Great Library in being a cultural showplace for the city, because the building is extraordinary;it is a modern architectural marvel with open stacks and a stream of visitors.

It reminded me of the new British Library near Saint Pancras in London, though it has a way to go in terms of holdings, witness the many empty shelves. I was graciously given a short tour of the document restoration lab, a very modern facility that deals with thousands of old manuscripts made of everything but papyrus, and I was told that it would be a while before they involve themselves with such. At present they leave papyrus manuscripts to the Egyptian and Coptic Museums in Cairo.

As to the plant, for many years it disappeared with the exception of a few wild clumps in a few scattered areas. It was gone and almost forgotten in the Delta almost from the time the Saracens destroyed the original Library. Then in the 1970’s, like the new Library, papyrus again rose from the ashes. It was brought back as cuttings that have been planted in the Nile in Cairo. So my next task was to return to that city to see how my favorite plant is doing in cultivation.

On the following day after a brief tour of the ruins, I caught the afternoon train back to Cairo. My coffee this time was served by Cleopatra, as apparently it was Hatshepsut’s day off.

Next post finds me floating in the Gardens of the Sacred Sedge.

© Copyright J. Gaudet, 2009, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Alexander’s City By The Sea

On arrival I have to ask myself why I am here. This is important as there are a great number of distractions in this city.

It starts as I am shown to my room. Since I’m only here a short while, I have booked into the Hotel Cecil, a luxury hotel known for its historical connections, Agatha Christie, Churchill, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham all stayed there, and during WWII so did British Intelligence.

I am preceded by a porter through the red carpeted lobby to the brass-caged, turn-of the-last-century museum piece elevator with two cars paneled in lovingly carved dark wood. Once in the spacious room, the porter walks to the window draws the floor-length red velour and gold drapes, and with a flourish throws open the window and the shutters. The room is flooded with sunlight and I am invited to step out onto the balcony where I am presented with a breathtaking scene. The sea, a calm glittering surface of Mediterranean blue, is framed by a breakwater a line of dead white, the low-lying limestone and masonary that continues out from the cornice of the shore and encircles the bay. It resembles an enormous circle of blue water caught in an eternal white embrace. I suddenly see why blue and white were the colors of ancient Greece.

Wait a minute, I ask myself. Why are you here?

I step back from the balcony and recall that I’m here to look over the new Great Library of Alexandria. It was here that the Ptolemys set out to collect of all the major written works of Western history. By the time of the Romans this amounted to a million papyrus scrolls.

Second, I’m here to see if there is any interest in using modern made papyrus paper from Cairo to reproduce some of the ancient scrolls. This was an idea of my old friend Hassan Ragab, to recreate some semblance of the original Great Library. I have an appointment with Hossam El Deeb and Wael Mohamed in the new document restoration laboratory in the Library. I hope to see my questions answered the afternoon of my arrival, which will leave the next day for sightseeing.

My plan is brought to a halt on getting out of the taxi in front of the Library, which I learn to my chagrin is closed. My taxi driver is ecstatic since this means I will definitely have to use him to return to the hotel. "Or," as he suggests, his eyes brightening like a child in a candy store when told he can sample as many of the goodies as he wants, “I take you to catacombs, yes?” “No.”
“I take you to Pompeii Pillar, yes?” No.”
“I take you all day only a hundred pounds, yes?” and so the litany begins, and will continue every time I get into a local cab.

I dismiss the taxi and walk around until I find a Library guard. He tells me the place is closed, but, “Only until 3 in the afternoon." Since they stay open until 7 this leaves me plenty of time. I later find out they are closed because of a surprise visit by the President’s wife, Susan Mubarak, who has a big interest in and has supported the Library for years. She has motored out from Cairo with a fleet of Mercedes that are now waiting in the driveway of the Library.

To kill an hour or so until opening time, I wander into a coffee shop, the Café Trianon, an Art Deco beauty left over from 1905 when Alexandria still thought of itself as an extension of Europe. Since the 60’s and Nasser’s intervention it is definitely now a part of Egypt and the United Arab Republic, even though most of the others have gone their own way. Still, the men here are prone to European styles and manners. I saw one broad-chested male with a Windsor knot larger than any I’ve ever seen. The knot shortened his dark red silk tie, but with his blue blazer, white shirt and short beard he reminded me of a picture of the Prince of Wales, the Edwardian one, later George V.

Wait, there she goes. I stand on the street with a throng of several hundred Egyptian women dressed in everything from head-to-toe burquas, with lace grills for mouth and eye holes, to Yves St. Laurent jeans, Liberty scarves and Armani sunglasses. We all wave goodbye as Susan roars off in her Mercedes motorcade. Shades of Washington DC, where I have stood in the same way on countless occasions, always assuming there really is someone of importance inside that dark-windowed juggernaut.

I now turn and look at the Great Library. A spectacular building, all glass, white stone and marble. My feet, perhaps on the same ground that Alexander walked on, tingle as a frisson of pleasure sweeps through me.

Next post will definitely be on the Great Library.

© Copyright J. Gaudet, 2009, all rights reserved.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Take Me to Alexandria

Woke in a dark hotel room to the sound of a horse. Sounded like it was in the room. No, it was the rhythmic clip-clop of metal shoes on the street below. Rushed to the window and threw open the drapes - too late, the street is empty.

Last night same street filled chockablock with people and cars is now deserted as dawn breaks over Cairo.

I look out into the morning haze and realize there is dust everywhere, on the ledges, on the buildings across the way, the street below, and on many of the cars parked down there. Dust, and in the air, dust. Hotel manager at breakfast tells me horse carts with farm goods come early into the city to avoid the cars, so it was not a dream.

Traffic after 8 is horrendous as I start early for the train station. In the first jam I watch a man with a cloth tied around his head turban fashion sweeping dust from a patch of city sidewalk in front of a café. This must be a lonely occupation in this city. I take note of his broom, which is an exact replica of the broom used in the musical “Wicked” I saw the week before last in NYC. Great show, tells us things are not always what they seem. Whoever thought you could fall in love with a green-colored witch?

I wonder if the broom will fly. No chance to find out as taxi starts again with a lurch and dashes forward bound for the station, a lofty open girder structure on tall wrought iron blue-painted pillars. Reminds me of British RR stations with their distinctive painted and decorated pillars, and the nimble-brained Victorian travelers (S. Holmes, for example) who could tell where they were by glancing at the pillars.

We travel about a mile a minute, in 15 minutes after leaving the station the train has left the dusty city behind and is passing through verdant fields, all of which are irrigated, so the countryside is dead level. Gets to you, mile after mile of flat, even terrain, almost hypnotic.

We pass clusters of cement and brick buildings, most have upper stories unfinished, rebar and bare brick columns sticking up. Presume this is a tax thing, the unfinished building is not taxed at full rate? Beds and furniture strewn about on unfinished top floor, washing hung out to dry on rebar, residents sleeping in the open air under the stars. Can’t beat that.

Oh look over there, a dovecote, a house for pigeons. It is sitting on an unfinished roof. It looks just like those in tomb paintings 3-4 thousand years ago, mud plastered dome-shaped with holes and perches for the birds to go in and out. Museum guide tells me ancient Egyptians raised pigeons for food, also used them to send messages. Great idea, if you don’t like the message eat the messenger. Try that with your computer.

On the train a young woman serving drinks and coffee looks like Hatshepsut, wife and queen of Thutmose II, dark eye makeup, lip gloss enhances resemblance. Makes coffee for me on the spot in a small glass tumbler, from TWO packets of Nescafe powdered espresso! Adds a shot of hot water then whips it to a froth. I drink it forthwith, black, no sugar. For a caffeine addict like myself this is the ultimate high, eyes stay wide open and will be that way for some time to come. Oh thank you Queen.

Two hours pass and the Alexandria station looms. For no reason I feel it strange to note that it is an exact duplicate of the lofty iron pillared station in Cairo, except one faces south the other north. Both are painted blue and white as is also a tram that sits not far from the station. Realize these are the colors of ancient Greece. Appropriate for the city founded by Alexander the Great. Leaving the station I see a large brass bell at hand still used to signal train departures. Tempted to give it a ring but station master is watching me carefully. Decide at that moment that I should travel more, it really does clear the brain.

The Great Library must wait for next post.

© Copyright 2009 John J. Gaudet, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bwana Papyrus in Cairo

In Cairo, the Mother of the World.

Seven million people live here inside 83 square miles, no wonder there's so much traffic.

Today I watched papyrus paper being made by Egyptians using 5000 yr old method. This is, or should be, a humbling experience.

Staying at the Windsor Hotel a colonial landmark in the back streets of Cairo not far from the train station. Formerly the British Officers Club. It features a dark, carpeted lounge decorated with mounted animal heads on the walls from desert hunting forays years ago and expatriates who gather here for drinks every evening. Staff are very polite and I get free internet. Food is nothing special except the babaganoush, which is world class, and the beer which is really cold and tasty. On the whole the Windsor is charming but seedy, just my cup of tea.

The taxis here twitter. That is, they keep beeping while driving simply to show everyone that they are alert and in contact or they do it to warn pedestrians or they just do it out of habit. I caught a cabbie today looking left, while driving right and beeping at something straight ahead, all the while driving like a bat out of hell.

Many here remember Dr. Hassan Ragab who brought papyrus back to Egypt, I met him several times when he first started out planting and nurturing papyrus cuttings. He was trying to build up a crop to use for paper making. In previous lives he had been a civil engineer, then an officer in the Egyptian Army where he rose in rank until he was a General, then he went off to Grenoble to take a Ph.D. with a special interest in the history of papyrus paper making. He died in 2004. Curteous, civil and with a sense of humor, much like many Egyptians I've met so far. He must have been quite a role model.

Tomorrow I travel by train to Alexandria to see papyrus restoration in connection with the new Library of Alexandria. It will be quite a thrill to stand on the same site as the former Great Library of Alexandria, the one that is said to have contained a million papyrus scrolls. Can you even imagine such a thing?

I hear the muezzin from the local mosque calling the faithful to prayer, almost feel I should respond.

More tommorow from Bwana Papyrus in the Great Library.

© Copyright 2009 John J. Gaudet, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Voyage Begins

“Papyrus was the enemy of oblivion.” Cassiodorus 530AD

The goal.

Why am I going on this trip?

In Africa, papyrus swamps are disappearing at a fast rate. In a few places swamp restoration has begun, but more effort is needed.

Papyrus is grown and conserved in several places in the Mideast where papyrus is a money maker -- it is used to make paper for tourists and it attracts birds by the millions so it's good for tourism as well. And more recently it is being considered as a filter for sewage and pollutants on the Nile and Jordan Rivers.

My intention on this trip will be to see if the techniques used in papyrus plantations in the Mideast might provide answers to the problems now faced in Africa. I’ll be reporting back on my adventures and new experiences on this blog, so keep tuned.

(More info about papyrus can be found on my website: my other blog: and on Twitter

Background - Papyrus in the Mideast

My interest in papyrus swamps dates back to the 70’s when I went out to Africa to study the swamps. I knew that the plant I was to study was the same as that used by the ancient Egyptians to make paper, but as I passed through Egypt I found papyrus was long gone, it had vanished from the Egyptian Nile at the end of the First Millennium. To the Saracens then in charge, it was all a matter of business, to them papyrus was hardly missed, after all, hadn’t they also introduced Chinese laid paper to the world? a product that was much easier to manufacture than papyrus paper and which was not dependant on a single species. The swamps of Egypt were converted to farms and life went on. When someone next looked around, papyrus had disappeared from Egypt. It wasn’t until the Victorian explorers went trudging through the swamps of Eastern and Central Africa that they found papyrus again. It was then the Victorian explorers began to understand that not only was papyrus alive and well, but they often had to fight their way through it in order to survive.

Papyrus is known to exist in two other areas of the world outside of Africa. It survives as small papyrus swamps on a river in Sicily where it is considered a novelty, and it also grows in the Jordan Valley, which is itself an extension of the African Rift Valley. For many years a swamp of 15,500 acres, or 24.3 square miles, prospered along the upper reaches of the Jordan River. It was called the Huleh Swamp. It was dominated by papyrus and provided a living for local Bedouins who made mats from the stems (to see a short video inside this swamp go to: )
In the 1950’s Huleh Swamp was cleared in order to make way for settlers coming from post-War Europe to Israel. The clearance resulted in massive ecological damage which I saw when I arrived in Israel early in my career as a swamp ecologist in 1978. It created an impression that has never left me.

Later this disaster was reversed and a significant part of the ecosystem was recovered. Now comes the good news the restored swamp (now called the Huleh Valley Nature Preserve), which is almost exclusively a papyrus ecosystem, is considered an ecological miracle. The rejuvenated swamp attracts millions of birds from Europe and N. America that pass through or overwinter there before going on to Africa. This in turn attracts hundreds of thousands of birdwatching tourists. As a result, the water quality in the Jordan River has improved and the income from tourism has significantly increased.
I will also tour Cairo where papyrus is grown in small plantations in the Nile. The stems are used for making papyrus paper for the tourist market, but it may also be possible to use the papyrus plants as filters for pollution. I will also briefly pass through the ancient Roman city of Jerash in Jordan where papyrus may have grown in ancient times.

© Copyright 2009 John J. Gaudet, All Rights Reserved