BY MARIAM ABDELMALEK
Ancient Egypt, land of the pharaohs, is a land full of undiscovered mysteries to the whole world till now. However, we can still see the roots of this civilization fix the fruitful tree of the current Egyptians. In this article we are going to talk about an Egyptian feast that once belonged to the pharaohs’ age. The rituals and beliefs associated with today’s feast called “Sham El-Nessim” link it directly to Ancient Egyptian feasts.
Monday, April 21 marks Sham El-Nessim, a festival that takes place in the same breath as Easter, falling on the day after Easter Sunday each year. Much like Easter, the festival deals with notions of creation and renewal.
It is celebrated on the same day as Coptic Orthodox Easter Monday. The largest Christian denomination in Egypt is the Coptic Orthodox Church, though this festival is not considered a particularly religious holiday. It has been celebrated since 2700 BC by all Egyptians, regardless of their religion, beliefs, and social status. When Egypt became a mainly Christian country under the rule of the Roman Empire, rather than replace existing festivals, Shamo (meaning renewal of life) was simply integrated into the Christian Easter celebrations.
Then, when Egypt became a predominantly Arab country, the holiday gained the name “Sham El-Nessim,” which means “smelling the breeze.” The feast’s celebration time remained the same, on the Easter (of Coptic christian) date, as that is based on a Lunar cycle like most Muslim festivals. The name Sham El-Nessim is derived from the Coptic language, which is, in turn, derived from the Ancient Egyptian language. It was originally pronounced tshom ni sime, with tshom meaning “gardens” and ni sime meaning “meadows”.
Like many Ancient Egyptian feasts, Sham El-Nessim was linked to astronomy and nature. It marked the beginning of the spring festival, where day and night were equal in length, and the sun in the Aries zodiac, marking the beginning of creation. Ancient Egyptians called it “The Feast of Shmo” (the revival of life). The exact date was determined by measuring the sun's alignment with the Great Pyramid in Giza.
Fish was important in the Ancient Egyptians’ beliefs, which translated into a range of fish dishes. Salted mullet fish, fesikh, was offered to the gods in Esna in Upper Egypt. In fact, Esna’s ancient name was Lathpolis, reflecting the original name of the fish before salting.
Another traditional Sham El-Nessim practice is the colouring of eggs, which reflects the Ancient Egyptian view of eggs as symbolic of new life. This symbolism was featured in the pharaonic Book of the Dead and in Akhenaten's chant, “God is one, he created life from the inanimate and he created chicks from eggs.” Ancient Egyptians would first boil eggs on the eve of Sham El-Nasim then decorate and colour them with various patterns. Afterwards, they would write their wishes on these eggs, tuck them in baskets made of palm fronds, and hang them on trees or the roofs of their houses, hoping that the gods would answer their wishes by dawn.
The custom of eating onions on the feast day is equally ancient. According to Egyptian legend, one of the pharaoh’s daughters had an incurable disease. Doctors were clueless until a high priest gave her an onion juice based medicine. Her condition improved, and her father, thrilled at her recovery, declared the day an official celebration in honour of onions. From that day forward, people would roam the city of Menf each year, offering onions to their dead.
Ancient Egyptians also considered certain flowers and plants to be holy, with the lotus flower used to symbolise the Egyptian nation.
Families in Ancient Egypt would combine these various elements at Sham El-Nessim. They would gather the day before to colour boiled eggs, preparing meals of fesikh and onions.
Some would hang onions in their doorways to ward off evil spirits or place them under their grandchildren’s pillows that night to summon the god Sukar. Before dawn, people would head to meadows and gardens or the banks of the Nile to watch the sunrise, bringing with them food and flowers. They would then spend the day in the open air, welcoming the spring with joyful singing.
Nowadays, many Egyptians rise at the crack of dawn and head out to parks and gardens for a family picnic. There they enjoy the spring breeze with a traditional meal of fish, onions and eggs.
A lot has changed since Ancient Egypt, but a lot of customs have persisted past the time of the Pharaohs.