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Monday, April 20, 2009

Sham el Nessim

Today is Sham el Nessim (pronounced Sham en-Nessim, due to the colloquial habit of dropping the "l" in "el" when it's followed by certain letters). It's a national holiday in Egypt, neither Coptic nor Muslim. It dates from Ancient Egypt. Interestingly, although it isn't a Coptic holiday, the date of its observance each year is dependent on the Coptic calendar. It's always the Monday after Coptic Easter. Maybe that has something to do with the Copts being the most direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians--at least that's what a tour guide told me once.

Sham el Nessim is the modern descendant of an ancient holiday that celebrated the beginning of the harvest season known as Shemu. "Shemu" refers both to the season and to the idea of "renewal of life." The feast of Shemu was celebrated as early as 2700 B.C. on the vernal equinox, which represented the beginning of creation. During the feast of Shemu, ancient Egyptians offered gifts of salted fish, lettuce, and onions to their gods. The fish symbolized fertility and general welfare. Lettuce represented hopefulness. I'm not sure what onions represented, but apparently they also were stuffed into mummies' eyes and were drawn on the walls of tombs. Some say that they keep away the evil eye. One legend is that the popular son of a Pharoah was cured, after being bed-ridden for years due to evil spirits, because a ripe onion was placed under his head and a sliced onion was placed near him so that he would inhale the fumes.

One interesting tidbit about the ancient celebration of this feast is that it included colored boiled eggs. They symbolized new life and luck. The ancient tradition of dying eggs and hanging them in temples may be one of the antecedents of modern Easter eggs, although there are other ancient celebrations that may have been the more direct inspiration.

Later in Egypt's history, during the time known as the Coptic age, the word "shemu" was corrupted into its current "sham," which means "to breathe or to smell." "El nessim," meaning "the breeze," was added. So "Sham el Nessim" literally means "to breathe or smell the breeze." And since Sham el Nessim marks the traditional beginning of the khamsiin season, it's appropriate. The khamsiin is a dry, hot, dusty wind which usually begins in April, although sometimes in March or May. Traditionally, it begins on Sham el Nessim and ends 49 days later, on the day of Pentecost.

In modern Egypt, Sham el Nessim is a celebration of spring. Traditionally, the celebration starts at daybreak, when families decorate eggs and prepare their food. According to the websites I read, Egyptians still eat the same traditional foods as their ancient ancestors did. They eat fiseekh, a dried and salted fish, usually sardines, mackerel, or anchovies. They also eat boiled eggs, lettuce, scallions or green onions, and lupini beans.

After dying the eggs and preparing their food, many Egyptians head outside. They find a patch of grass in a city park, or they head out into the countryside, or up the Nile, or to the zoo. They spread their blankets and have a picnic. The primary point seems to be spending time outside, "smelling the breeze." Many Cairenes and local expats take off work the day before Sham el Nessim and get out of the city for a long weekend--definitely recommended if you want to spend a lot of time outdoors and actually be able to smell the breeze rather than just the pollution! They go to Sharm el Sheikh, Hurghada, Ain Sukhna ... any of the resort/tourist destinations.

Jeff and I don't have any real plans for the day. Because the embassy observes local holidays as well as American ones, Jeff is off work, but we didn't do any traveling this weekend. Jeff worked yesterday. I may see if he wants to go out to the Wadi sometime today. We haven't been out there yet. From what I understand, there's no greenery--it's desert--but it's a little outside of the worst of the pollution. It's a popular place for people to run, walk, bike, or hunt for fossils. So we may go "smell the breeze" there ... or we may just laze around home. We'll see.

In any case, it's a holiday, it's spring, and I hope everyone can enjoy both. I don't know the traditional greeting for this holiday, or even if there is one--I'm taking this semester off from language classes, so there's no teacher to ask--so I can't say whatever I'm supposed to say. Instead, I'll just say this: Happy Sham el Nessim!

Update: We decided against the Wadi idea. Jeff's coworkers have warned him that traffic is horrendous on Sham el Nessim, so we aren't going anywhere that isn't within walking distance.

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