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Egyptian Revives Ancient Art of Making Papyrus Paper

August 10, 1989 GMT

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Hassan Ragab’s dreams once fit into a bathtub. Thirty years later they cover an island in the Nile and have made him not only Egypt’s papyrus king but also Pharaoh of a imaginary kingdom from the days of King Tut.

The realm of the 78-year-old former diplomat and engineer is Jacob’s Island, a finger of land south of Cairo where he first established a papyrus farm, then re-created a 3,300-year-old village to give tourists glimpses of ancient Egyptian life from flat-bottom barges.

Papyrus is everywhere on the island.

His love affair with the willowy river plant began in 1955, after his appointment as Egypt’s first ambassador to China. On a countryside tour, he saw workers making paper by hand.

″I thought of my own country, once world-famous for producing paper from the papyrus plant,″ he said. ″Everything was written on it, from peace treaties to marriage contracts to medical instructions.″

But by the middle of the 20th century, ″papyrus was finished in Egypt, except for a few ornamental plants,″ he added. ″I thought how great it would be if I could start a little industry, making paper again.″

In 1960, with papyrus stalks he cut in Sudan, Ragab began experimenting in his bathtub.

No one else could help him, he said, because papyrus-making, like mummification, was so sacred the ancients reserved it for the Pharaohs.

For six years Ragab cut papyrus pulp into strips, soaked them, dried them, hammered and pressed them into sheets.

Nothing worked.

″I was down to my last coin,″ he said. ″Even my family thought I was stupid. One day my wife came in and gave me a choice of her or the dirty bathtub.

″But fortunately, for the papyrus industry and for me, I discovered my mistakes. I still had both a wife and a bathtub.″

Ragab opened his first Papyrus Institute, which he called ″One of the Seven Wonders of Modern Egypt,″ on a little houseboat in the Nile in 1966, growing the plant in surrounding Nile shallows.

His papyrus paper attracted artists, who duplicated tomb paintings, golden faces of King Tut and ancient medical manuscripts.

Lightweight and exotic, papyrus is ″the only true Egyptian souvenir,″ Ragab said. Egyptian presidents give papyrus as gifts. In 1984, President Hosni Mubarak went to Washington with a Ragab portrait of the Sphinx with President Ronald Reagan’s face instead of a Pharaoh’s.

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Ragab estimates his industry now earns $100 million a year locally, $40 million internationally.

But Ragab’s success was too great. Hundreds of papyrus factories sprang up, many making fake paper from banana skins or corn husks. Few tourists could tell the difference.

″You even have two villages with 30,000 people who gave up farming a couple of years ago, just to grow, make, paint and market papyrus,″ Ragab said.

He then had another idea.

″I realized there was no place for a tourist to learn about ancient Egypt, about what he was seeing in the museums,″ he said. ″And I looked at Jacob’s Island.″

What he saw in his mind’s eye was ″a living village from the golden days of the New Kingdom, the time of King Tut and Ramses.″

He started work on it in the early 1980s, hired actors to take the roles of ancient Egyptians and by the time Dr. Ragab’s Pharaonic Village opened in 1985, he had poured $8 million into it, a fortune built with papyrus.

But tourist agencies avoided it and many still do. Tour books didn’t mention it and most still don’t.

But Ragab holds on.

″This should be the first stop for any tourist,″ said art teacher Pat Cline, of Ingleside, Ill., in front of a scaled-down Pharaonic temple. ″It teaches you so much. It’s going to be one of our favorite highlights of Egypt.″

Equally as enthusiastic was Dr. Adel Ibrahim, a surgeon from Huntington, W.Va., who had brought his wife and three children to Egypt to learn something of his native land.

″It’s a miracle,″ Ibrahim told Ragab. ″You’ve done Egypt proud.″

Ragab smiled.