Sham Ennisim

Sham el-Nessim

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Sham ennisim (Egyptian Arabic: شم النسيم, IPA: [ˈʃæmm enneˈsiːn], from Coptic: Ϭⲱⲙ‘ⲛⲛⲓⲥⲓⲙ shom ennisim) is an Egyptian national holiday marking the beginning of spring. It always falls on the day after the Eastern Christian Easter (following the custom of the largest Christian denomination in the country, the Coptic Orthodox Church). Despite the Christian-related date, the holiday is celebrated by Egyptians regardless of religion, and can be traced back as far as 2700 B.C., when it was a religious festival celebrated on the vernal equinox by the Ancient Egyptians.

The name of the holiday is derived from the Egyptian name of the Harvest Season, known as Shemu, which means a day of creation. According to annals written by Plutarch during the 1st century AD, the Ancient Egyptians used to offer salted fish, lettuce, and onions to their deities on this day.[1] The 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 ennesim 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 Shemu, means “renewal of life”. The Ancient Egyptians first celebrated the feast of Shemu in 2700 BC, towards the end of the 3rd Dynasty.[citation needed]

After the Christianization of Egypt, the festival became associated with the other Christian spring festival, Easter. Over time, Shemu morphed into its current form and its current date, and by the time of the Islamic conquest of Egypt, the holiday was settled on Easter Monday. The Islamic calendar being lunar and thus unfixed relative to the solar year, the date of Sham el-Nessim remained on the Christian-linked date even after most Egyptians had become Muslims. As Egypt became Arabized, the term Shemu found a rough phono-semantic match in Sham el-Nessim, or “Smelling/Taking In of the Zephyrs,” which fairly accurately represents the way in which Egyptians celebrate the holiday.

In his book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Edward William 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 modern Sham ennisim is celebrated by both Christians and Muslims, so it is considered a national festival, rather than a religious one. The main features of the festival are:

  • People spend all day out picnicking in any space of green, public gardens, on the Nile, or at the zoo.
  • Traditional food eaten on this day consists mainly of Feseekh (a salted Grey Mullet), lettuce, scallions or green onions, tirmis or Lupini Beans, and colored boiled eggs.