Short Story: Sham El-Nessim – a 4,500 year-old Egyptian feast
Sham El Nessim While millions of Egyptians mark the national holiday of Sham El-Nessim, one of the few celebrations that bring both Muslim and Coptic Christians together, very few realize that it is a celebration linked directly to ancient Egypt.
Sham El-Nessim, which translates to “smelling the breeze,” falls on the Monday that follows the Coptic Orthodox Easter. Despite its timing, the holiday is celebrated by Egyptians regardless of religion.
In modern times, the holiday is marked with picnics to parks while meals of different items including colored eggs, chocolate bunnies, salt-cured mullet fish (known as fesikh) and onions.
“The earliest known celebration of Sham El-Nessim in ancient Egypt dates back to the third Dynasty (2650B.C.-2575B.C.)” archaeologist Sherif el-Sabban told The Cairo Post Sunday.
In ancient Egypt, the day marked the beginning of the season of She-mu, literally translating to “low-water,” the 4-month harvest season that falls roughly between mid-April and mid-August, said Sabban.
During this season, the crops of the grain harvest including wheat and barley were collected. She-mu was preceded by Peret, the cultivation season and was followed by Akhet, the inundation season, Sabban added.
“According to annals written by the Greek historian Plutarch [46A.D.-127A.D.], the ancient Egyptians also used to offer salted fish, lettuce, and onions to their gods and goddesses on this day,” Sabban said, adding that the day was believed to have equal hours for day and night.
“Every year, the ancient Egyptians tested Sham El-Nessim by viewing whether or not the sunlight lay in an upright angle on the Great Pyramid,” he said.
Symbolizing resurrection, lettuce and malana (green chick pea sprouts) were eaten in ancient Egypt as they were plentiful following the receding of the Nile flood, said Sabban, adding that sardines, mullet, mackerel and anchovies were also preserved by salting.