Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sham el Nessim

Or, more correctly, Sham en Nessim. [For you linguists, the definite article el changes to en, for reasons of euphony or ease of pronunciation, because the noun begins with the letter n.]

This is the holiday celebrated on Easter Monday (the day after Coptic Easter) by people of all faiths in Egypt. Like the Easter celebration most of our readers are familiar with, it is associated with colored eggs and family get-togethers, especially picnics.

In his book Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1834), Edward William Lane reports:

A custom termed “Shemm en-Nessem” (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khamaseen. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats,…to take the air, or, as they term it, smell the air, which on that day they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect.
[Note: the Khamaseen or Khamsin (fifty )is the wind which often brings sandstorms, and also the windy season which typically lasts around fifty  days. And the festival is celebrated everywhere in Egypt, not just Cairo.]

This celebration is roughly 5000 years old! The name comes from ancient Egyptian shemu, which was the harvest season and the first season of the year in the ancient-Egyptian calendar.

The first day of Shemu was believed to be the anniversary of the day of creation. This was the day when the benu bird (gray heron, symbol of life and resurrection, and probably the prototype of the phoenix—the Greeks borrowed almost everything from the Egyptians!) sat on the first mound of earth that rose out of the swirling waters of isfet, or chaos. So, even in ancient times, eating and decorating eggs was an integral part of the celebration.

The ancient word shemu was not only the word for the harvest season, but also the word for life, renewal, resurrection. So it is probably the origin of the modern word sham, which means smelling or breathing. After all, if you can't breathe you aren't alive! So, then and now, the whole festival is a celebration of the breath of life and the breath of renewal and the bounty of the earth.

So, when you enjoy an Easter egg of any kind—chocolate, painted, etc.—just remember that the ancient Egyptians started this whole thing of celebrating with eggs.

Well, that’s enough information for one day. More tomorrow or Thursday, inch’Allah.

I first learned of this holiday only about a week ago. (After all, this will be my first Easter in Egypt.) I read about it on page 22 of Egyptair’s Horus magazine, April issue.
Internet sources are Wikipedia and:



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