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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Sham el-Nessim, the Spring Festival in Egypt


By Priscilla Adum




Smelling the Breeze

Sham El Nessim is a festival in Egypt that marks the beginning of spring and is celebrated as a national holiday. The custom dates back about 5,000 years or so, since Pharaonic times, predating both Christianity and Islam.

Sham el-Nessim used to be celebrated earlier in the spring than it is today. However, when Christianity came to Egypt, this presented a problem. It was customary for Christians to fast before Easter, and therefore they were not able to eat the characteristic foods of the spring festival. Sham el-Nessim was therefore moved to fall after Easter, after the fasting was over.

Today, Egyptians celebrate Sham el-Nessim on the day after Eid al-Qiamet (Easter). Coptic Christians celebrate Easter according to the Julian calendar, which places it at least a week later than their counterparts in the West celebrate Easter on the Gregorian calendar.

Sham el-Nessim is not a religious holiday, and in Egypt it's observed by Muslims and Christians alike. The name literally means "smelling the breeze".

These celebrations of rebirth and renewal are as old as civilization itself. Many historians believe that spring festivals originated in ancient Mesopotamia, then spread to the surrounding areas, and eventually to Europe.

Egyptian customs associated with Sham el Nessim are ancient ones, and they are typical of spring festivals. It's customary to dye eggs and to wear brightly colored clothing that day. Families traditionally enjoy picnics in public gardens, eating outside in the open air.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: These dyed eggs were served on the breakfast table of Gezira Garden Hotel on the West Bank of Luxor in April 2019. Photo by Shira.




Traditional Foods

Traditional foods for Sham el-Nessim include fesikh (salted fish, sometimes spelled feseek), green onions, and lettuce. The fesikh is made by drying a special type of fish named سمك البورى (pouri, known in English as the flathead grey mullet) in the sun's rays for about 2 days. Then it is placed in special containers with a large amount of salt, and left unrefrigerated for many months until it has become very salty.

The batarekh (fish eggs, or roe) of the pouri are also popular.

Some people eat another salty fish known as melou7a which is made in a similar way to fesikh. Still other Egyptians prefer to eat a less salty fish known as ringa (a type of herring), which they import from other countries.

Some people who don't like to eat salty fish may prefer to make mahshe waraa el anab, which are stuffed grape leaves. First they boil the grape leaves in water. Then, in each leaf, they place a mixture of rice, minced meat, minced onion, tomato juice, some butter, and some spices. They roll the grape leaves over this mixture, then put all the rolled leaves into a deep pot, add some soup broth, and cook it over fire. When it boils, they reduce the heat, and simmer on low fire until completely cooked. It is similar to the way they cook rice.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This image inside the tomb of Ka-Gmni at Saqqara shows fishermen with their catch. Photo by Shira.




Music Popular for Sham el-Nessim

There are two popular Egyptian songs that have become beloved springtime favorites. They are played on the radio and aired on television quite often during this time of year.

El Donia Rabi3

Soad Hosny's "El Donia Rabi3" ("The World is Spring-ey") is immensely popular around the time of Sham el-Nessim. It debuted in the 1975 Egyptian movie Amira Hobbi Ana (Amira, My Love).

Sometimes the song title is spelled as "El Donya Rabea".

Haifa Webe has also recorded "El Donya Rabea".

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This scene shows a screen capture of the segment of Amira Hobbi Ana where Souad Hosny sings the song while her friends cavort around the garden.

El Donya Rabea

Al Rabea

Farid El Atrash's "Adi El Rabi3 3ad Min Tani" ("Spring has Returned Once More") is also a popular song in Egypt in the springtime. He performed this song often at spring celebration parties.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This scene shows a screen capture from the film Afrita Hanem in which Farid al-Atrache is singing "Adi El Rabi3 3ad Min Tani". The song in this scene is sometimes referred to as "Sketch al-Rabie".

Sketch al-Rabie



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About the Author

Priscilla is a dancer of Lebanese heritage who enjoys researching the Golden Era of Egyptian dance. She owns a collection of more than one hundred classic black and white Egyptian films which is continually expanding.

Priscilla has also gathered a large library of dance related articles and clippings from Middle Eastern magazines and newspapers, many of which she has translated from the original Arabic to both English and Spanish.

Priscilla currently resides in Central America where she is a dance instructor. 




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