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Sham Ennessim shows the true pharaonic heritage of Egypt and is celebrated by all Egyptians regardless of their religious backgrounds.
Sham Ennessim is one of the most important holidays in Egypt. All Egyptians celebrate it regardless of religion, class and background.
The annual celebration of the Sham Ennessim festival is considered the oldest connection to Egypt’s pharaonic heritage. Since ancient times, it has been a time for Egyptians to reconnect with their ancestral roots and reclaim their heritage, as is reflected in the popular saying, “Those without history are as good as dead,” as well as in Thutmose III’s words, “A wise man listens to his predecessors.”
This holiday, as well as the “Flooding of the Nile” celebration, is purely Egyptian and has been commemorated since ancient times.
Researchers and historians consider Sham Ennessim the only holiday that has resisted integration into a particular belief or religious system. It has remained a national holiday of nature.
In an interview with Fanack, Dr Sherif Shaban, an Egyptologist and art historian responsible for cultural development and social awareness at the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said that Sham Ennessim is about the celebration of the arrival of spring. “The word ‘sham’ can be traced back to the hieroglyphic word ‘shemo’ or the harvest season between May and September,” Shaban said.
In his book Sham Ennessim Myths, History, Customs and Rituals, researcher Essam Staty agrees with Shaban’s statement. He also adds that this name changed from “shemo” to “sham” during the Coptic era, and the word “el-Nessim” was added later.
According to Shaban, it is customary to collect cereals during this season. “Egyptians celebrated Sham Ennessim for the first time around 2700 BC and have been celebrating it since the Ptolemaic and Roman era until the present day.”
Shaban points out that other festivals, like the Persian and Kurdish Nowruz, are also associated with spring. Other examples include the ancient Greek Adonia and the Babylonian New Year.
Traditionally, Sham Ennessim is associated with Eastern Easter. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the Holy Week and takes place the Sunday before Easter. It is followed by Maundy Thursday, referencing the Last Supper, Good Friday, Easter and, finally, Sham Ennessim, the subsequent Sunday.
Staty argues that ancient Egyptians chose this day because they used to associate their holidays with astronomical phenomena. This holiday was set to coincide with the spring equinox – when day and night are of equal length – and was celebrated with the sighting of the sun at the Great Pyramid. Described as “When God sits on his throne atop the pyramid,” the sun appeared to sit atop the pyramid, and light and shadows divided the pyramid’s face into two halves.
Regarding talks to Fanack about the traditions of the holiday in the past. “Egythe holiday’s ancient traditions, Shaban says, “Egyptians celebrated this holiday by exchanging flowers, social gatherings and fancy banquets. In the 1st century AD, the Greek historian Plutarch mentions how Egyptians offered salted fish, lettuce and onion to their deities.”
According to Shaban, ancient Egyptians used to eat geese and ducks, along with dried and salted fish. He asserts that dried fish symbolises resurrection and lettuce represents fertility. Green chickpeas, traditionally eaten on this holiday, embody spring’s arrival, and onions symbolise resilience against diseases.
The Holy Five
Egyptians eat five specific foods during Sham Ennessim: eggs, fesikh, onions, lettuce and green chickpeas. According to Staty, they are called the Holy Five, representing the five fingers on one hand.
Ancient Egyptians associated the holiday with the beginning of time or the world’s creation. They also believed that the entire universe emerged from a large egg. The Iunu and Memphis papyri state that the god created the earth from clay shaped like an egg and breathed life into it. Life came to be, plants sprouted, and water burst from its surface.
Ancient Egyptians treasured the life cycle of fish just as they respected the Nile. And so fesikh, a dry salted fish, became a staple of Sham Ennessim around the time of the fifth Dynasty.
During this era, the sanctification of the Nile, the river of life, became prevalent. Life on earth is believed to have begun in water, represented by the fish carried by the Nile from heaven, from which the river originates.
Onions became a Sham Ennessim staple during the sixth Dynasty, associated with one of Memphis’ ancient legends. The only child of a pharaoh contracted a mysterious, incurable disease, which suspended the celebration for several years. The High Priest read spells and placed a ripe onion under the prince’s pillow at sunset.
At sunrise, he cut the onion and placed it on the prince’s nose Onions were part of the miracle several more times, eventually healing the prince. Ever since, people have hung bundles of onions on the doors of their homes when Sham Ennessim arrives.
Depictions of lettuce were found on murals in temples and tombs dating back to the fourth Dynasty. The ancient Egyptians considered lettuce a sacred plant of “Min,” the god of fertility. They revered it for its benefits, associating the plant with love and romantic songs.
Green chickpeas have been used to celebrate Sham Ennessim since the era of the Old Kingdom, and its pods were called the “harvest drums.” Malana, as the Egyptians called it, were considered an indication of the start of spring. Girls would use the peas as beads for necklaces and bracelets to celebrate the holiday.
Art and Sham Ennessim
According to Shaban, the festival has endured over time and is still celebrated today. People gather in parks and by the Nile to eat Fesikh and coloured eggs and bring joy to children.
“The holiday sees multiple art competitions. Songs associated with spring are dearly cherished among the Egyptians. These include Souad Hosny’s song ‘al-Donia Rabie‘ and ‘Loghat al-Zohor‘ by Umm Kulthum.”
Over the years, the holiday music scene has seen heated competition between Farid al-Atrache and Abd al-Halim Hafiz. Their songs have been played on radio and television for years, bringing millions of Egyptians together. Farid al-Atrache is renowned for his song ‘El Rabieaa,’ while Abd al-Halim is known for ‘Hal al-Rabie al-Gameel.’ In 1917, Hassan al-Mamlouk composed and performed ‘Tuhfet Sham Ennessim,’ a song that is still enjoyed today:
Greetings, Sham Ennessim,
Today is great, and so have you been,
And for you, lovers meet,
In the sea of love and blissful paradise.
Al-Mamlouk concludes the song with a passage emphasising the unity of Egyptians:
On this day, we rejoice a lot,
And laugh and play young with old,
Christians, Jews, Muslims too,
In the sea of love and blissful paradise,
Greetings, Sham Ennessim.
Regarding the connection between Sham Ennessim and Egyptian drama, Shaban mentions a 1952 film titled Sham Ennessim. The movie featured Samira Ahmed and Rushdy Abaza and was directed by Gianni Vernocchi. It portrays the Sham Ennessim celebrations through amusing sketches as the main characters go on a picnic and encounter humorous situations.
Several writers from Egypt and the Arab world have written about the holiday. These include Naguib Mahfouz, Ahmed Khalid Tawfik, Nawal al-Saadawi and poets Ibrahim Nagi and Salah Jahin.
The residents of Port Said upkeep a unique Sham Ennessim tradition. They wait for the day to burn a puppet known as “Allenby.” There are both historical and political aspects to the ritual. As the story goes, following his arrest by Viscount Allenby after the 1919 revolution, Saad Zaghloul was supposed to be exiled through Port Said. The people of the city came to bid him farewell but were prevented from doing so by the police as per the orders of Allenby.
In protest, they burned a large straw puppet resembling Allenby on Mohammed Oumi Street, which became an annual tradition associated with Sham Ennessim.
Staty adds that, despite some attempts to prevent people from doing so, it is the only holiday still celebrated regardless of religion.
The holiday’s international character inspired orientalists such as Edward William Lane to write about it in his book An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Shaban adds.
In his book, The Path of Glory to Youth, Salama Moussa says, “On this day, we forget our grudges that society has instilled in us, and we remember one thing, that we are human beings, united in the joy of spring and the smell of its breeze. Regardless of religion, people say to each other, ‘Happy new year.'”