Sham el Nessim (Sham el Nisseem, Sham el Niseem), Egypt Spring Festival

Sham el Nessim
Egypt Spring Festival

By Heba Fatteen Bizzari

Painted eggs for Sham el Nessim

More than a few Egyptian traditions today derive from very ancient times, including the holiday known as Sham el Nessim, which may have been celebrated as early as 4,500 years ago. For Egyptians, Sham el Nessim (Sham el Nisseem, Sham el Niseem), literally meaning sniffing the breeze, marks the beginning of the spring. It falls immediately on the first Monday following the Coptic Easter and it was related to agriculture in ancient Egypt which contained fertility rites that were later attached to Christianity and the celebration of Easter. It is believed that the Egyptians were the first to celebrate this occasion.

Sham el Nessim seems to be a holiday as old as Egypt. According to the Egyptian Information Service, the name of the holiday is actually derived from the ancient Egyptian harvest season that was called "Shamo", also explaining that, according to Plutarch's annals, the ancient Egyptians used to offer salted fish, lettuce and onions to their deities on this day. Dr. Mohamed Ibrahim Bakr, former chairman of the Antiquities Authority, explains that:

"The spring festival coincided with the vernal equinox, and the ancients imagined that that day represented the beginning of creation. The date of Sham El Nessim was not fixed. Rather, it was announced every year on the night before the feast at the foot of the Great Pyramid. The feast of 'Shamo,' means 'renewal of life' which was later corrupted during the Coptic age to 'shamm' (smelling or breathing) and the word 'nessim' (breeze) was added. The ancient Egyptians first celebrated the feast of Shamo in 2700 BC, towards the end of the 3rd Dynasty." In his book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, W.W. Lane wrote in 1834: "

A custom termed 'Shemm en-Nessem' (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khamaseen. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats, generally northward, to take the air, or, as they term it, smell the air, which on that day they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country or on the river. This year they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the neseem; but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to 'smell' it. The 'ulama have their 'shemm en-nessem' at a fixed period of the solar year, the first three days of the spring quarter, corresponding with the Persion 'Now-roz," called by the Arabs 'Norooz'."

Today, the early morning brings out millions of Egyptians on Sham el Nessim who crowd open green spaces even if that means ending up sitting on grassy patches next to roads, due to the scarcity of public parks and open areas in Cairo. Families start at dawn preparing their food, then take their blankets with them and enjoy the breeze of spring.

Termis (lupin seeds)

Sham el Nessim is also celebrated by eating traditional foods. It is associated with several types of food that are eaten together yet are much diversified. Fiseekh (Salted fish), boiled colored eggs, termis (lupin seeds), and green onions are some of the types of food eaten on this day, each backed by a different myth. It was believed that offerings of fish were made to the ancient gods to ensure a good harvest. Salted fish symbolized to the ancient Egyptians fertility and welfare. Fish were abundant when the waters receded from the Nile flood, leaving them trapped in natural pools, and easily caught.

Today, the Egyptians celebrate Sham el Nessim by eating a variety of slated, smelly fish known as fiseekh (feseekh). The fiseekh is prepared in a traditional process that is considered almost an art form. The process of preparing the fish is passed from one generation to another to insure its quality. The types of fish used are sardines mackerel and anchovies. Their prices range from 15 to 20 Egyptian pounds, said Monir Abdel Salam, a 38 year fasakhani salt fish specialist in the Giza district.

Many people believe it is not healthy to eat fiseekh and have removed it from the list of food or have replaced it by tuna from a can. It is too smelly. You cant even get the smell out of your hands, plus it is rotten and hospitals are always full of poisoned people who have eaten bad fiseekh, said Ihsan Mostafa, 42, mother of three. It is especially bad for a child. Thats why Im keen on making a tuna salad for them instead, added Mostafa.

About fiseekh during Sham el Nessim, Al-Ahram reports that:

"Fiseekh is at the centre of things: Grey Mullet is caught, piled high in containers, and left out until distended. When sufficient evidence of its putrification is available, salt is added and the fish are left to pickle for a few more months. And voil, the fish that Egyptians are willing to literally die for is made. It is no wonder that tens meet their death every year during Sham Al-Nessim -- usually as a result of botulism contracted from the smelly culprits. This year, the authorities impounded approximately 38 tonnes of spoiled fish and arrested nine Cairo shop-keepers for selling bad fish. Local papers ran articles on how to identify clean fiseekh -- check the flesh around the backbone and make sure the smell is not too pungent -- and how much to eat. Nationwide, centres for the treatment of poisoning announced a 48- hour emergency. Vaccines to treat botulism were also distributed nationwide and at reduced cost. Unfortunately, 12 upstanding Egyptian citizens died of fiseekh poisoning anyway.

" Others disagree. The fish can smell bad, but I assure you that it is one hundred percent safe to eat. Salt is used as a way to dry fish and preserve it. There are no additives used and the whole process is done by hand. We dont need machines. We Egyptians are good at preserving. Our mummies are still here from 4500 years ago, added Abdel Salam. Well, ok, but mummies are not very appetizing either.

Egyptians along the Nile getting ready for the holiday

Eggs for the pharos were dyed and hung in temples as emblems of regenerative life. They not only symbolize new life, but they serve as small art works to enjoy at the picnics. Dyed eggs from pharaonic times are a direct predecessor of our Easter eggs today. This is the best part for the whole family. We usually go to the Cairo Zoo in the early morning but the first thing we do is color the eggs. We use water colors and then put them in the sun to dry so they will be ready for us to enjoy. My four year old daughter is the most talented of my children at painting these, said Mostafa.

Green onions also seem to have a special significance in the occasion. It has been found that in ancient times, onions were stuffed in the eyes of mummies and drawn on tomb walls. To the modern Egyptian they served a different purpose, They keep the evil eye away and prevent envy, said Sherif Momtaz, 45, nurse and Ihsans husband. They are also good for one's health, added Momtaz.

Dr. Bakr also explains that scallions (onions), first appeared on the festive menu at the end of the 6th Dynasty, mentioned in papyrus relating to legends of Old Memphis:

"It is said that one of the pharaohs had an only child who was so much loved by the people. The young prince was struck down by an unknown disease and bed-ridden for years, during which time the people abstained from celebrating festivals in sympathy for the king and his son.

The king summoned the archpriest of the Temple of Oun, who diagnosed the boy's sickness as having been caused by evil spirits. The priest ordered that a ripe spring onion be placed under the patient's head. The priest sliced a second onion and put it on the boy's nose so that he would breathe in the vapors. The papyrus text says that the prince soon recovered and festivities were held in the palace to mark the occasion which coincided with the beginning of spring season. As a goodwill gesture for their king, the people hung bunches of scallion over the doors of their houses, which explains how it came to be a main item on the table at Sham El Nessim."

Lettuce represents the feeling of the hopefulness at the beginning of the spring.

Islamic sources do not encourage Muslims to participate in the holiday, which is seen as related more to Christianity and is not considered to be a religious holiday of that faith. Yet, just as Halloween is certainly based on a pagan tradition, that does not stop Christians from having fun on that day. Lane (Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians) tells us that:

"It is remarkable that the Muslims of Egypt observe certain customs of a religious and superstitious nature at particular periods of the almanac of the Copts, and even according to the same system, calculate the times of certain changes of the weather. Thus they calculate the period of the 'khamaseen' when hot southerly winds are of frequent occurrence to commence on the day immediately following the Coptic festival of Easter Sunday, and to terminate on the Day of the Pentecost (or Whitsunday), an interval of forty-nine days."

Hence, even today, many Muslims take the holiday as an excuse to celebrate and break the routine of the week. We all know that it is not a Muslim feast, but that doesnt mean I cant take my children out to celebrate and see other people celebrating and having fun. I would be cruel to my children if everyone they know is celebrating while they are at home upset, said Momtaz.

The festival differs according to the area. In Alexandria people go to Montazah Palace which opens its gardens to the public. They go there to celebrate the display and scent of almost 20 thousand types of plants, including some hundred rare ones. The day also includes folkloric shows by dancing troupes and military music parades. It should be noted that many hotels in Egypt provide specials for this holiday, so it can be a fun time for all, including tourists. Archives