Nile Grass & Rushes

Reeds are a fairly generic type of plants. Tall, grasslike, grown in wetlands. They are found in a variety of plant families and aren’t related to each other. The reeds of Ancient Egypt are from the Cyperaceae (sedge) family and are called Cyperus papyrus, aka papyrus, papyrus sedge, paper reed, Indian matting plant, or Nile grass.

Papyrus growing wild along the banks of the Nile River in Uganda. Michael Shade, 2006.

Growing at the edges of the water, 4 to 5 m (13 to 16 ft) high, this plant had multiple uses. “In Ancient Egypt, papyrus was used for various of purposes such as baskets, sandals, blankets, medicine, incense, and boats. The woody root was used to make bowls and utensils, and was burned for fuel.” There was also “hats, fish traps, trays or winnowing mats, and floor mats.” Papyrus paper dates back to the fourth millennium BCE, well before our New Kingdom setting.

Construction structures of a “cast” house of the 19th century, Pravoberezhna Ukraine, Deriivka village, by the road in a pine forest.  7 July 2015. Latuha1.


Many rural peoples engage in traditional activities for the benefit of tourists, employment, or their own personal use. We can’t assume that what people do now is what they did thousands of years ago (or even a decade ago).

Mat making using papyrus was not traditional uses by the ethnic communities around Simiyu wetland, though at present is the major economic use. Initially, the technology of mat making around Simiyu wetland was introduced by Waha and Wanyamwezi people who used a sedge Schoenoplectus corymbosus. (locally called malago or ndago) in making mats locally known as ‘vilago’. The local Sukumas also learnt from skilled weavers, who lived at Nsola and Bubinza, to make vilago for use as beds and seats. The technique of using papyrus to make mats around Simiyu wetland was introduced by Wajaluo and Wanyala tribes who immigrated into Nsola and Bugabu villages, and camped at Sangayika beach during 1960s and 1970s….The Luos and Wanyara used mats as beds and construction of shelters.

Traditional Uses of Cyperus Papyrus (L) and Associated Problems at Simiyu Fringing Wetland of Lake Victoria, Mwanza region, Tanzania. Josiah M. Katondo, National Environment Management Council, P.O. Box 63154, Dar Es Salaam. [Lake Victoria is the head of the Nile River which flows north through modern-day Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea.]

Mohamed Badry describes making mats from “reeds and grasses especially el-Summar herbs (Juncus), and linen.” Unfortunately, he does not state which species of Juncus (rushes) and he doesn’t define “el-Summar,” a term I can’t find outside his work. He does, however, include pictures of sheaves of dried thin straight stalks of around 4 feet in length. These are cut in half and soaked in water, then woven on a loom with linen thread as the warp and rushes as the weft. Mats could also be coiled or plaited. And they could use various materials, including palm tree wicker (“el-Fahl” or “el-Talil”).

One possible material could be Juncus rigidus aka sea rush. “In Ancient Egypt, Juncus rigidus was used to make pens for writing on papyrus. The rush has also been used for weaving mats and the fibre can be used in paper manufacture.”

Rush (Juncus rigidus) in a salt marsh near Fuwairit. Northern Qatar, Alexey Sergeev, March 12, 2016.


Mats can be woven on a loom (some are complex, others very simple) or hand-braided.

Title: Mat.  Period: New Kingdom.  Dynasty: Dynasty 18.  Date: ca. 1550–1295 B.C.  Geography: From Egypt, Upper Egypt, Thebes, Asasif, Temple of Hatshepsut, Carnarvon/Carter excavations. Medium: Fiber.  Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1912.  Accession Number: 12.181.316.  The Met Fifth Avenue.

While fancy patterns and looms did exist in Ancient Egypt, an easier method appears to be stringing several threads from a header (parallel to the weaver), arranging dried plant material sideways a couple inches deep, then tying them off and adding more.

Members Of Kibbutz Hulata Weaving Reed Mats On The Shore Of Lake Hula. חלוצות, חברות קיבוץ חולתה, אורגות מחצלת קני סוף בחוף אגם החולה.
Date 01/03/1940.  This is available from National Photo Collection of Israel, Photography dept. Goverment Press Office (link), under the digital ID D585-035. Zoltan Kluger.

Depending on the reeds/rushes used, the sizes, and the care taken with weaving, this could produce floor mats, sleeping mats, roofing material, or a countless number of other useful things.

Sitting Mat.  This is a traditional sitting mat, this picture was taken in the North-eastern part of Namibia. This is made of the river reeds.The items on the mat are used as plates, while the other long thing is used as a bloom (used to sweep). This is an image of Cultural Fashion or Adornment from Namibia. 22 December 2014,. Mahevo Saima.



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