Monday, 9 April 2018

Sham el Nessim

Families fill city parks at Sham el Nessim.

Today is Sham el Nessim, an ancient spring festival celebrated in Egypt since pharaonic times.  Falling on the Monday after Coptic and Greek Orthodox Easter but rooted in the religion of the Old Kingdom, Sham el Nessim is a picturesque national holiday when the entire population, Christian and Muslim and until recently Jews too, goes out into the fields or to the Nile to eat in the open air and greet the zephyrs of spring.                                                                           

A young girl at the spring flower show at Ismailia.

Edward William Lane, in his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, described the Sham el Nessim he knew in  the 1830s.  

'A custom termed "Shemm en-Neseem" (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khamaseen. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it ; and in the course of the forenoon, many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats, generally northwards, to take the air, or, as they term it, smell the air, which, on that day, they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country, or on the river. This year (1834), they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the neseem ; but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to "smell " it.  The 'Ulama have their "shemm en-neseem " at a fixed period of the solar year; the first three days of the spring-quarter, corresponding with the Persian "Now-r6z," called by the Arabs "N6rooz."'

Lawrence Durrell used Lane's book to provide himself with background for his Alexandria Quartet in which the two Hosnani brothers are called Nessim and Narouz.

Jewish families of Alexandria celebrate Sham el Nessim
on the beach in 1912.

Rose Tuby, the future wife of Baron Edmund de Menasce,
was a friend of Constantine Cavafy
and later of Lawrence Durrell.

[The sepia photographs in this post are from Michael Haag's Vintage Alexandria published by The American University in Cairo Press.  The colour photographs are from Egypt Today magazine.]