Sham El-Nessim: An Ancient Egyptian festival celebrated today

Sham El-Nessim is an Egyptian food festival or national holiday dear to me, because it combines many political and religious aspects of Egyptian history into one day that is celebrated by Egyptians of all backgrounds. The festival is a spring celebration and can be loosely interpreted into English as the “smelling of the breeze”. However, the title is derived from the Ancient Egyptian word Shemu, meaning feast and creation pertaining to harvest season.

The festival is always celebrated the day after Coptic Orthodox Easter in April of each year, but, despite its Cristian connotations, it is considered a non-religious national family holiday in this modern age and celebrated by Christians and Muslims alike. “Sham El-Nessim has been celebrated since 2700 BC by all Egyptians regardless of their religion, beliefs, and social status. The name Sham El-Nessim (Inhaling the breeze) is derived from the Coptic language, which is, in turn, derived from the Ancient Egyptian language.” (Ahram Online, 2014)

As in ancient times, Egyptians traditionally celebrate Sham El-Nessim by picnicking with family and friends in parks and gardens (i.e. smelling the breeze). They eat a dish called fiseekh, which is fermented, salted and dried fish (usually mullet), as well as lettuce, green onions, baladi bread, and termis (lupin seeds). There are also colored boiled eggs involved to please the children.

There are many rituals in Ancient Egypt associated with this festival. In general the pharaohs offered their gods this special food and flowers in their temples. “Ancient Egyptians believed that “Sham El Nessim” day marks the beginning of world creation; when “Ra” The Sun God sails with his boat in the skies and anchors on the top of the great Pyramid, a journey that symbolizes life and death. They made special preparations for the day, wearing their finest clothes and they went to temples holding flowers to present food to the gods. The feast was also celebrated with a special meal that consisted of colored eggs, Salted fish, onions and lettuce. This food symbolized the idea of creation of the world.” (Elbaz, 2017)

Health and religious drama

Unfortunately, mainly because proper sanitation methods are not utilised by most Egyptians due improper public awareness campaigns, poverty and illiteracy. Many people become severely ill after eating fiseekh and there are rare fatalities. “The way the fish is prepared leaves those who partake at risk of botulism. Every year the newspapers are full of stories of poisonings, despite calls from health officials for citizens to forgo the dish.” (Dean, 2015)

Proper statistics are not readily available on this issue, but every year there are reports of hospitalization due improper fermentation fiseekh. “And it definitely pays to buy the fish from a proper source: in 1991, the worst year on record, 18 people died from eating feseekh, according to the Ministry of Health.” (Berger, 2017)

Yet the risk is always worth it to Egyptians every year. That includes religious drama. Also every year, hardline Salafist clerics feel the need to issue unbinding edicts (their unsubstantiated opinions) calling on Muslims not celebrate Sham El-Nessim as it’s not an Islamic celebration. “The renewed Fatwa fails to have any effect what so ever on Egyptians. Although 5000 years passed and the religious meaning of the festival is no longer there but Egyptians nowadays are keeping the tradition and still celebrate the day the same way their ancestors did, by going out to gardens and parks spending the day enjoying beginning of the spring and eating the same meal Ancient Egyptians used to have…” (Elbaz, 2017)


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2 thoughts

  1. Very informative and well written. Egypt has a vast history to explore. Thank you Nihal for shading some light on the most celebrated festival in Egypt by all Egyptians regardless of religious beliefs. Thumbs up

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