Sniffing the breeze – a national holiday to celebrate Spring

While Easter was mostly of interest in Siwa only to non-Egyptian tourists and Monday 25th was ANZAC day for those of you reading in Australia, in Egypt Monday 25th was a national holiday called Sham el-Nessim, “sniffing the breeze”, which celebrates the beginning of Spring.

People gather in parks or green spaces and eat feseekh (a fish which is salted and kept for a year, and has a strong smell), green onions, lettuce, termis (lupini beans) and coloured boiled eggs. Of course the coloured eggs sound familiar to you at this time of year – Greek, Russian, Eastern European coloured eggs, and in Australia chocolate eggs covered in coloured foil, all for Easter. However Sham el-Nessim, while connected to Easter by some people, has much earlier origins.

It always falls on the day after the Eastern Christian Easter, but can be traced back to 2,700 BC when it was a religious festival celebrated by the Ancient Egyptians on the vernal equinox. Its name comes from the Egyptian name for the harvest season, Shemu, which means a day of creation. During the 1st century AD, Egyptians used to offer salted fish, lettuce, and onions to their gods on this day.

After the Christianization of Egypt the festival became associated with Easter, which on this side of the world is also a spring festival. By the time of the Islamic conquest of Egypt the holiday was set on Easter Monday. As the Islamic calendar is lunar the date of Sham el-Nessim remained on the Christian-linked date. As Egypt became Arabized, Shemu became Sham el-Nessim, or “Smelling/Taking In of the Zephyrs”.

In 1834, Edward William Lane wrote in his classic book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians: “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, generally northward, to take the air, or, as they term it, smell the air, which on that day they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country or on the river. This year they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the neseem; but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to ‘smell’ it.”

T held a party at his new café for the tourists to celebrate both Easter and Sham el Nessim, with traditional Siwan music and dancing. Most attending were Egyptians from outside of Siwa who clapped and hooted along to the music, with a few enthusiastically joining the dancing. With no electricity connected yet, the café and Bedouin tent behind it were lit by candles and petrol lamps, and with a clear sky and stars and the air staying warm until late, it was a good night to welcome in Spring.

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