Welcome Spring and celebrate Easter the Egyptian way
Egypt has a remarkable combination of ancient wonders and an enviable climate, which makes it the ideal destination for an Easter holiday abroad. It is also a country steeped in Easter traditions and also hosts an unique Spring festival, Sham el-Nesseim where the roots of contemporary Christian Easter celebrations can be found.
Egypt’s Coptic Easter festivities start on Saturday evening with services consisting of psalm reading, hymn singing and burning of incense. During the ceremony all lights are switched off and only turned back on in the moment of symbolising the resurrection. On Easter Sunday, people go to church, visit relatives, exchange gifts and enjoy picnics.
The Sham el-Nesseim festival always falls on the Monday following Orthodox Easter, Easter Monday, and is celebrated by both Egyptian Christians and Muslims as an Egyptian national holiday, rather than as a religious one.
The name Sham el-Nesseim derives from the Egyptian harvest season, Shemu, meaning ‘renewal of life’ or ‘day of creation’, when people offered salted fish, lettuce and onions to their deities. During the Coptic Period, it was adapted to Shamm, meaning smelling or breathing, and the word nasseim was added which translates to ‘breeze’. People would take long walks in the countryside or take a boat up north to smell the fresh air, which was supposed to be beneficial for health. Traditional foods were prepared at dawn and eaten with the family.
Traditional foods eaten during this festival include fesikh (fermented mullet), hard-boiled eggs, lettuce and malana, a green and leafy plant.
Fesikh is salted and pickled grey mullet. It represents fertility and welfare. During the ancient times, offering fish to deities ensured a good harvest. The process of preparing fesikh is quite elaborate, passing from father to son in certain families and the occupation has a special name in Egypt, fasakhani. The process involves fish being left to pickle a few months before being eaten. However, due to the strong smell and as a modern-day alternative, a lot of people have started to use white fish.
Hard-boiled eggs are painted with watercolors and dried in the sun before being devoured. Some of them are true little artworks. Coloring eggs has remained a very common Easter tradition and is the most popular Easter worldwide tradition.
The activities surrounding the festival differ slightly depending on each local area. In Alexandria for example, Egyptian’s go to Montazah Palace, which opens its garden to the public so people get to breathe and celebrate the scent of more than 20 thousand types of plants. In Cairo, a common activity involves taking a felucca, a small narrow boat with one or two sails, along the Nile River to enjoy the beautiful views.
Visiting Giza Zoo is also a very popular way to spend the day, especially for families with children. In other areas throughout the Egypt, the day includes folkloric shows, dancing troops and music parades.
For further information on this Egyptian celebration and how you can experience and explore Egypt, visit egypt.travel.