A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sham al-Nassim

Today is Sham al-Nassim, the ancient Egyptian spring holiday celebrated on the Monday following Coptic Easter Sunday. It is not a Christian holiday; its origins are said to be with the Ancient Egyptian Shemu or spring holiday, later in the Christian period localized around Easter; Muslims celebrate equally with Christians and, until their exodus in the Nasser era, Egyptian Jews.

It's usually said that only two Egyptian holidays date back to the days of the pharaohs:  Sham al-Nassim and Wafa' al-Nil in mid-August, which marks the Nile flood (though the Aswan High Dam ended the annual inundation in the 1960s.) Both, like so much of Egyptian history, center on the Nile. On Sham al-Nassim Egyptians picnic on the river, stroll in parks, gardens, or the zoo, and eat seasonal foods: a dried salty fish called fassikh, green onions, lettuce, tirmis (lupinis), and (a borrowing from Easter? Or vice-versa?) they dye colored eggs. (See the photos below.) Even the foods may be ancient. Supposedly Plutarch somewhere wrote that the Ancient Egyptians had a spring holiday involving dried fish, lettuce, and onions, but I've never found a citation to confirm that story, beloved of Egyptian websites, even government ones..
Sham al-Nissim delicacies (Al Kahira-Cairo-LeCaire)
Even the name is interesting. In Arabic sham al-nassim means "smelling the breezes," a delightful description of a spring day on the river. But if it is truly a descendant of Shemu, that Ancient Egyptian word meant "harvest." In Ancient Egypt, the harvest was not in the fall as in most agricultural societies; it was in spring and summer, before the Nile rises in August. Shemu is presumably the origin of the Coptic word for "summer," Shom, and despite the appropriate "smelling the breezes" meaning in Arabic, likely the origin of the Sham part of Sham al-Nassim. This should of course in no way deter anyone from using the day to smell the breezes.

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