Papyrus is a crude form of paper which is made with the stalks of the papyrus plant, a reed native to the Mediterranean region. Papyrus was developed by the Ancient Egyptians, who allowed the technique to spread to other regions of the Mediterranean, setting the stage for the development of other flexible writing materials like vellum, and eventually modern paper. Thanks to Egypt's unique climate, it is possible to find ancient papyrus which can be used to learn more about Egyptian culture.
Prior to the development of paper, written records were kept on clay, wax, or stone tablets. These tablets would have been cumbersome to use and transport, and they also took up a great deal of space. When papyrus was developed, the Egyptians revolutionized recordkeeping and the accessibility of the written word, making it possible to keep extensive records on a wide variety of topics. Being able to examine these records has been a great book for archaeologists, who have used papyri to learn about Egyptian art, commerce, religious beliefs, and other aspects of Egyptian culture.
To make papyrus, the stalks of the reeds are macerated in water and then beaten to split the reeds. After being beaten, the reeds are overlaid over each other in two layers which run at right angles to each other, and then pressed and dried. As the papyrus dries, the layers pull together, creating a fairly strong, durable paper which was traditionally polished with stones to make the surface easier to write on.
The Egyptians stored their papyrus in the form of scrolls, attaching pieces of the paper for especially long documents. In the extremely arid, hot climate of Egypt, these scrolls have been astoundingly well preserved, with numerous extant examples being uncovered by historians. Unfortunately, in more humid climates, papyrus starts to rot and fall apart, and untold numbers of papyri were destroyed when scrolls were moved to Europe; numerous others were destroyed when papyrus was burned in the fireboxes of steam trains by English colonists in the 19th century. Today, collections of papyri are stored in carefully climate-controlled spaces to reduce the risk of damage.
For people familiar with modern paper, the coarse texture of papyrus would take some getting used two. Several companies make authentic papyrus, mainly as a novelty, and a few integrate papyrus fibers into their paper for a taste of the exotic without the inconvenience of true papyrus.