Sham El-Nessim, “Smell The Breeze,” is a festival celebrated by Egyptians of all religions and social classes with certain habits and traditions. However, what many people don’t know is that these traditions go back to about 4500 years ago, at the time of our great ancestors, who started celebrating this day making another great tradition last this long.
The Pharaohs started celebrating Sham El-Nessim in 2700 BC towards the end of the 3rd Dynasty according to papyrology. Back in the day, this feast was called “Shemu,” an Egyptian word that means “Revival.” That is, Ancient Egyptians celebrated the coming of spring and the beginning of the harvest season. Not only that, but the Pharaohs also linked this day to astronomy, as they always do when it comes to their feasts. This day was the only day when the length of the day is equal to the length of the night.
The Pharaohs had certain traditions in celebrating this feast. Much like nowadays, they used to start off the day with eggs for breakfast. They also ate salty fish as it was a common meal in the 5th Dynasty and Ancient Egyptians were particularly good at storing and salting fish, as the famous historian, Herodotus, stated. The habit of eating onion on this feast started at the end of the 6th Dynasty inspired by the story of the king’s son who had an unknown disease which was said to be caused by evil spirits. The disease was cured by the smell of onion, so the Pharaohs started eating it on this day as a way of keeping the evil spirits away in the new year. Moreover, the Pharaohs used to go on voyages on the Nile to enjoy nature at the beginning of the spring and they would gather in front of the pyramid to watch the sunset behind it till the sun reaches a point just behind the edge of the pyramid.
The Pharaohs were also the ones to start the habit of coloring eggs. It was mainly because eggs represented revival to them. Eggs also had some religious connotations; there is a drawing of Ptah, God of creation in Ancient Egypt, where he sat on a floor shaped like an egg. So, on Sham El-Nessim, Ancient Egyptians used to dye eggs and write their wishes on them. Then, they would put the eggs in baskets made out of palm fronds and hang them on trees, temples, or verandas hoping that the gods will accept their wishes at dawn.
Sham El-Nessim remained mostly the same as different religions started spreading in Egypt and even had an effect on some religions. For example, the Jews took over this feast and called it “Easter” as they took advantage of the Egyptian’s engrossment in celebrating this feast to escape from them in the time of Moses. Later, it happened that the Egyptian Christian Easter was on the same day as Sham El-Nessim. Because on Easter, Christians celebrated the breaking of their fasting from fish, it was decided to move Sham El-Nessim, where fish is the main dish to the day after Easter. Finally, in Islamic Egypt, the celebration of this feast remained the same with its ancient traditions as a celebration for the coming of spring.
Sham El-Nessim still remains one of the most remarkable feasts in the year till this day. If anything, this is proof of how strong the Pharaohs’ culture was owing to how long it has survived. Do you think there are any Egyptian habits nowadays that can survive as long as this feast has?