Festivals are always happy events. They are often a reminder of a people’s heritage and tradition, and a celebration of their culture and way of life. While some festivals are tied to particular religions, others transcend those borders and are often engaged in and celebrated together by everyone, irrespective of their beliefs.
The Sham el-Nessim is one such festival that is celebrated by everyone in Egypt, Christians and Muslims alike.
The Feast of Shamo: Renewal of Life
While it is closely related to Easter, Sham el-Nessim predates Christianity and is regarded as a festival as old as Egypt. The original festival was a spring celebration known as the feast of Shamo which dates back as far as 4,500 years to the era of the pharaohs.
Shamo which means renewal of life is believed to have been first celebrated in 2700BC to welcome the agricultural season. The festival contained the use of colored eggs and rites of fertility which were later attached to the celebration of Easter by Coptic Christians. During the Coptic age the name of the festival got corrupted to ‘shamm’ which means smelling or breathing. Later on ‘nessim’ (breeze) was added.
Eggs, Fish, Lettuce and the Breeze
The ancient practice of the celebration involved coloring and decorating of boiled eggs by the people, while wishes are sometimes scribbled on the eggs, placed in baskets which are hung on trees or placed on rooftops as offerings to the gods. Other offerings to the gods include; lettuce, onions and fish.
Usually at dawn on the day of Sham el-Nessim, the people especially women would split an onion and sniff it. Others will go out well before noon into the country to smell the air. Later on, families go out on picnics and get-together, and enjoy treats of salted fish known as fiseekh.
Fiseekh: Can You Smell the Fish?
Eating of the fiseekh is perhaps one of the most important highlights of the festival. In ancient times, the people lived close to the Nile and they caught lots of fish, which they store and preserve with salt. Often the fish is allowed to bloat up and salt is added after the signs of being spoilt sets in, and left for a couple of months to pickle.
Unfortunately, this can cause botulism and has resulted in the deaths of some people. Because of this, some families have altogether axed fiseekh from the menu, although others disagree and still continue to eat the smelly salted delicacy.
Sham el-Nissem is an annual festival usually celebrated on the first Monday following the Coptic Easter, and it has become an official holiday in the country. If you are anywhere in Egypt during the period, go ahead and enjoy smelling the air.
For additional information, please see: