AL-QARAMUS, Egypt－In the lush green fields of Egypt’s fertile Delta Valley, farmers and artisans are struggling to make a living as they keep the Pharaonic-era tradition of making papyrus alive.
In the 1970s, an art teacher in the village of Al-Qaramus taught farmers millennia-old techniques of transforming the plant into sought-after paper decorated with ornate drawings and text.
The village and its surroundings, located about 80 kilometers northeast of Cairo, now make up the largest hub of papyrus production in the country.
Once used by ancient Egyptians as writing paper, local artists decorate the papyrus with hieroglyphics, Arabic calligraphy and representations from antiquity and nature to create souvenirs for eager visitors.
But tourism in the North African country has taken a battering since its 2011 revolution, and after a Russian airliner was downed by the Islamic State group in 2015.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further debilitated the sector. Egypt earned just $4 billion in tourist revenue last year, a quarter of what it had anticipated before the global health crisis.
Said Tarakhan, a farmer and artist, said Al-Qaramus has 25 farms trying to make ends meet by selling papyrus, compared to around 500 prior to the revolution. “I lost about 80 percent of my total income－I used to earn nearly $1,000 a month and now it’s almost zero,” said the 60-year-old as he showed off his replica Tutankhamun paintings.
The papyrus plant, with its fan-shaped foliage, grows in water and can reach 4 meters in height. Its form has served as inspiration for decorating the columns of ancient Egyptian temples.
To make paper, workers use wire to cut the stems into thin strips, which are immersed in water and then layered on top of each other to create sheets.
The sheets are placed into a compressor to press them, and the resulting paper is left to dry in the sun before being decorated with writing or colorful designs.
Abdel Mobdi Mussalam, a 48-year-old papyrus workshop owner, said his staff has dwindled from eight a decade ago to just two.
Tarakhan is trying to branch out into other papyrus products such as notebooks and sketchbooks.
A few months ago, his son Mohammed launched an online store to sell their new range of products.
“At first, we were just selling locally to those who came to us, but after COVID-19, we thought that we could reach more people, and even foreigners, through the internet,” said the 30-year-old Mohammed.
Near the famous Giza Pyramids around 100 km away, Ashraf al-Sarawi displays papyrus paintings in his large shop, devoid of tourists.
He lost most of his income last year due to the pandemic, but expressed hope that tourism would pick up soon.
“Tourism never dies,” said the 48-year-old. “It may get sick for a while, but it will return.”