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Cyperus papyrus. Hula swamp, Israel. Cyperaceae

While giant cane and common reed are the most widespread of Bible wetland plants, perhaps the best known is bulrush mentioned in the story of baby Moses (Exodus 2) where the child was hid in the vegetation along the Nile River.

Still common in parts of the Nile, bulrush or papyrus (Cyperus papyrus), is also found throughout much of Africa. Papyrus is the source of the English word paper. Paper was made by pounding the soft stems together. Resembling a grass but in a related family, papyrus has a round stem several meters tall that bears a spherical mass of tiny flowers on long, flexuous stalks at the top. The thick stems are filled with cells that contain air, and may be the reason it is called agam (with variations), meaning absorbent in Hebrew. In some places, ie Exodus 2:3, 5 papyrus is used for cuwph.

This absorbency caused by the large air spaces provided buoyancy in making boats. In an apparent reference to the Nile, Isaiah 18:1-2 refers to these boats, "Woe to the land of whirring wings [or locusts] along the rivers of Cush [that is, the region of southern Egypt and adjacent Sudan], which sends envoys by sea in papyrus boats over the water."

At one time, there was a large population of papyrus in northern Israel in an area that the Bible refers to as the waters of Merom (Joshua 11:5) or Lake Merom. This swamp, the Hula Swamp, was a malarial area. Zionists drained most of the swamp earlier in this century, destroying the habitat of the papyrus, the northernmost population of this plant in the world. Fortunately, there has been a concerted effort to restore part of the Hula Swamp and it is now possible to visit the area and see impressive stands of papyrus.

Paper as a writing material is mentioned in only one place in the Bible. (In Isaiah 19: 7, the Hebrew word arah is translated paper reed in the KJV, perhaps an illusion to papyrus. The NIV renders this as "plants along the Nile" which could also be papyrus.) This reference is in II John 12a-"I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink." Chartes, the Greek word used here, is related to the English word chart. Greeks imported papyrus via the Phoenician town of Byblos, from which our word bible and related terms come. Thus, in New Testament times, paper was well known to writers such as the Apostle John.

Cyperus papyrus. Hula swamp, Israel. Cyperaceae Cyperus papyrus. Papyrus. Hula Swamp, Israel. Cyperaceae