The first century Greek historian Plutarch wrote that the ancient Egyptians would honour their deities with offerings of salted fish, lettuce and onions on the feast of Shamo during the spring harvest season. Shamo means ‘renewal of life’, and some rituals associated with it, such as the colouring of eggs, have become attached to the celebration of Easter.
During the Coptic era Shamo became corrupted to Sham—‘sniffing’ or ‘smelling’—and the spring festival of Sham El-Nessim (‘sniffing the breezes’) is the modern version of this 4500 year old tradition.
The same foods that were consumed on Shamo are still eaten today. Lettuce and malana—green chick pea shoots—symbolise the resurgence of life; as they became plentiful during the receeding of the yearly Nile flood, fish were also viewed as symbolic of fertility by the ancient Egyptians, and salted fish—known as fisikh—is another regular part of the meal on this day. Fisikh is prepared in traditional processes handed down from one generation to another; the types of fish used include sardines, mullet, mackerel and anchovies.
The festival of Sham El-Nessim occurs on the Monday after Coptic (Orthodox) Easter. It is a time to ‘take in the air’, and families will take trips to the countryside, visit parks and zoos, colour eggs and hold picnics. It is the modern recognition of an ancient practice that has survived the coming of the Jews, Christians and Muslims—a celebration of spring that can be shared by all modern Egyptians regardless of their religion.
The holiday known as Sham el Nessim, or literally, smelling the breeze is one of them. Sham el Nessim seems to be a holiday as old as Egypt, which may have been celebrated as early as 4,500 years ago.
Sham el Nessim falls on the first Monday following the Coptic Easter. It was related to agriculture in ancient Egypt which contained fertility rites that were later attached to Christianity and the celebration of Easter. It marks the beginning of spring, and therefore, it is the spring festival of Egyptians and it becomes a national holiday.
It is called Sham El-Nessim because the harvest season in ancient Egypt was called “Shamo”. In Arabic, Sham means smell and El-Nessim means air.
On Sham el Nessim, families start at dawn preparing their food, then go for picnic and enjoy the breeze of spring, which on that day they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. Millions are out; some dine in the country and some celebrate on boats on the river. In Cairo where there are few public parks and open areas, people crowd all the lawns they could find.
Sham el Nessim is also celebrated by eating traditional foods. Traditional food eaten on this day consists mainly of scallion (or green onions), Fiseekh (smelly salted fish), boiled colored eggs, lettuce and termis (Lupini Beans).
Green onions seem to have a special significance in the occasion. It has been found in ancient times. Scallions (green onions) first appeared on the festive menu at the end of the 6th Dynasty, mentioned in papyrus relating to legends of Old Memphis: “It is said that one of the pharaohs had an only child who was so much loved by the people. The young prince was struck down by an unknown disease and bed-ridden for years, during which time the people abstained from celebrating festivals in sympathy for the king and his son.
The king summoned the archpriest, who diagnosed the boy’ s sickness as having been caused by evil spirits. The priest ordered that a ripe spring onion be placed under the patient’ s head. The priest sliced a second onion and put it on the boy’ s nose so that he would breathe in the vapors. The papyrus text says that the prince soon recovered and festivities were held in the palace to mark the occasion which coincided with the beginning of spring season. As a goodwill gesture for their king, the people hung bunches of scallion over the doors of their houses, which explains how it came to be a main item on the table at Sham El Nessim.”
To the modern Egyptian, they served a different purpose. They keep the evil eye away and prevent envy. They are also good for one’ s health.
Salted fish has been a symbol of welfare to Egyptians. It was believed that offerings of fish were made to the ancient gods to ensure a good harvest. Salted fish symbolized to the ancient Egyptians fertility and welfare. Fish were abundant when the waters receded from the Nile flood. Today, the Egyptian people celebrate the festival by eating a smelly fish called fiseekh. The fish is prepared in a traditional process that is considered almost an art. Such process is passed from one generation to another to ensure its quality.
Eggs are another must for the day. They symbolize new life, which Egyptians believe they could bring luck. Before going out to “smell the breeze,” the first thing an Egyptian family does is coloring eggs. They use water colors and then put the dyed eggs in the sun to dry.
Termis and lettuce are harvested in late winter/early spring, which represent the feeling of the hopefulness at the beginning of the spring.
Monday 6 May 2013 marks Sham El-Nasim, in the same breath as Easter. The rituals and beliefs associated with today’s Sham El-Nasim celebrations link it directly to ancient Egyptian feasts.
Celebrated since 2700 BC by all Egyptians regardless of their religion, beliefs, and social status, the name Sham El-Nasim (Inhaling the breeze) is derived from the Coptic language that, in turn, is derived from the ancient Egyptian language. Originally pronounced Tshom Ni Sime, with tshom meaning “gardens” and ni sime meaning “meadows.”
Like most ancient Egyptian feasts, Sham El-Nasim was also affiliated with astronomy and nature. It marks the beginning of the spring festival, which is the time they believed day and night are equal, (when the sun is in the Aries zodiac) hence marking the beginning of creation. They confirm the exact date annually by sighting the sun in relation to the great pyramid. Ancient Egyptians named it The Feast of Shmo (the revival of life) and have officially celebrated it since 2700BC.
At the crack of dawn Egyptians usually leave their homes to have a picnic with their families in meadows and gardens to enjoy the breeze. On this national holiday the traditional Sham El-Nasim meal consists of fish, onions and eggs.
Fish was highly respected in ancient Egyptian beliefs. Salted mullet fish (known as fesikh), was offered to the gods in Esna in Upper Egypt to the extent that Esna’s ancient name was Lathpolis, which was the name of the original fish before it is salted.
As for colouring eggs, it’s a custom mentioned in the pharaoh’s famous Book of the Dead and in Akhenaton’s chants, “God is one, he created life from the inanimate and he created chicks from eggs.” Hence, the egg was a symbol of life to ancient Egyptians
Ancient Egyptians would boil eggs on Sham El-Nasim eve, decorate and colour them in various patterns, then write their wishes on these eggs, tuck them in baskets made of palm fronds and hang them on trees or the roof of their houses in hopes that the gods would answer their wishes by dawn.
The habit of eating onions on that day is equally ancient. According to Egyptian legends, one of the pharaoh’s daughters had an incurable disease. Doctors were clueless until a high priest started giving her a few drops of onion juice. Her condition improved and her father, thrilled, named that day “the onion coalition day.” That day people would roam the city of Menf and offer onions to their dead.
As for flowers and plants, ancient Egyptians considered them holy and the lotus flower was actually the symbol of the country in ancient times.
In ancient Egypt, families would combine all of these: they would gather on the eve of Sham El-Nasim to colour the boiled eggs, prepare the fesikh and onion, some hanging the onions on their door steps to ward off evil spirits and putting them under their grandchildren’s pillows that night to summon the god Sukar. Before dawn, people would head to meadows, gardens and the Nile river bank to watch the sunrise while carrying food and flowers. They spend their day out in the open air, joyfully singing away the hours.
Little has changed since the time of the Pharaohs, apparently.
Traditional Sham el Nessim Recipes and Food Menu
The main feature of the celebration is preparing and eating of traditional foods. The dishes eaten on this day consist mainly of green onions or scallions, Fiseekh which is a smelly salted fish, boiled colored eggs, lettuce and termis or Lupini Beans.
Significance of Sham el Nessim Recipes
Green onions have a special significance on the occasion. It has been found in ancient times and has been an important part of the festivities owing to the belief that it helped cure the son of one of the pharaohs from a mysterious illness. In modern times, scallions are believed to keep the evil eye away and prevent envy. Salted Fish, which is also an important Sham el Nessim food has been a symbol of welfare to Egyptians. It was believed that offerings of fish were made to the ancient gods to ensure a good harvest. Salted Fish symbolizes fertility and prosperity.
Boiled eggs are another must-have for the day. They are a symbol of new life and luck. Before anyone steps out of the house, the eggs are colored.