Friday, 29 October 2010

The Unpublished 8: Sham El Nessim, Egypt’s Rite of Spring

As it's spring here in the southern hemisphere, I was reminded of this piece about a memorable Egyptian rite of spring I wrote some years ago, though it was never published. Enjoy...

Many cultures have a way of welcoming the coming of spring. After the long cold nights of winter, the light and growth of the new season feels like something that should be celebrated.

In many countries, Easter has supplanted older rites of spring. Though it is now a solemn Christian commemoration of Christ’s death, it has retained the eggs that symbolise new life.

The word “Easter” originally came from the festival of Oestre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, fertility and new life.

Rabbits and eggs have always been seen as symbols of fertility and rebirth, so it’s not surprising that they have remained the main symbols of Easter.

Of course, Australian Easter falls at the beginning of autumn, which removes the direct link with spring. We are, however, keeping up a tradition which dates back thousands of years.

Back to the Pharaohs

Egypt has an even older way of welcoming spring, a day of celebration as old as the Pharaohs. On the Monday after Coptic Easter (celebrated later in the year than our Easter), Egyptians take to the outdoors to celebrate Sham El Nessim.

Literally “sniffing the breeze”, it's a day of welcome to spring that has been observed for almost 5000 years. The ancient Egyptian harvest season was called “Shemu”, so there is another link in the name.

Sham El Nessim is a picnic day. People swarm outdoors, to settle down on any piece of grass they can find. In a city like Cairo, this is no easy task. Over the last few decades, the city has exploded in size, increasing to over 17 million inhabitants in a densely-packed area.

Green space has given way to housing, and very few public parks remain. This doesn’t stop Cairenes from enjoying Sham El Nessim. Every grassy area right down to highway median strips is occupied by family picnics.

Lettuce, eggs and fish: symbols of life

The traditional foods eaten on the day - lettuce, eggs and fish - also reflect the coming of spring. The green lettuce suggests new life, the eggs suggest renewal and the fish are a symbol of fertility.

A fascinating echo of Easter is the practice of dying eggs in beautiful colours, believed to have also been done by the ancient Egyptians. Children are also given new clothes on the day, another recognition of the “newness” and change of spring.

Egypt has a way of reminding you how ancient a civilisation it is. The crumbling stone monuments of the Pharaohs are one example of this, but Sham El Nessim is, quietly, more impressive.

It’s a living connection to the people of 50 centuries ago, a good-natured testament to human optimism. And a reminder that the world’s diverse cultures are not all that different in what they find worthy of celebration.

Sham El Nessim next falls on Monday, 25 April 2011.

The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.