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Ancient Festival Unites Egyptian Muslims, Christians

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Egyptians are celebrating Monday the spring festival Sham el-Nessim, which is an occasion that brings together the nation's Muslims and Christians.

In this time of tension between Muslims and Christians, Egyptians of both faiths are celebrating a spring festival that predates their religions.

"Celebrating Sham el Nessim is an old pharonic celebration. It starts at the end of the winter season and the beginning of the spring season,” said Yehia Elghazzawy, a historian at Cairo University.

Four thousand years ago, the vernal equinox was calculated using the shadows of the pyramids.

Now Sham el Nessim is tied to the Coptic Christian calendar - falling the day after Orthodox Easter.

Some fundamentalist Muslims reject the holiday, seeming to conflate the two, or viewing it as pagan.

But for most, it is simply a long-standing tradition, celebrating the beginning of a new season, marked by eating salted fish and decorating eggs - a practice later adopted by many Christians.

"It is a tradition every year in Sham el Nessim to wake early and come help my grandmother color the eggs,” said one girl.

It is a time of family and friends and neighbors, who do as the name means - “smell the breeze” - outdoors at picnics or in walks along the Nile.

It may be hard to keep all the troubles of recent months at bay as even the price of eggs has gone up.

For many in this troubled and divided country, however, Sham el Nessim is a chance to celebrate just being Egyptian.