Easter Season in Egypt, 1834: ‘Smelling the Breeze’, Making Kishk, Eating Colored Eggs & Salted Fish

kishk, an Egyptian dish made with thickened mi...

A bowl of kishk topped with sautéed onions, an Egyptian dish made with thickened milk or yogurt and topped with fried onions. It is described in the following text as a 19th century treat. In the village where I lived, it was still a great treat that was made by some of the older women.  It is a dish that transcends religious sects and socio-economic strata, as well as ethnicities. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Manners and Customs of The Modern Egyptians, by E. Lane, is a two-volume set filled with lore about Egypt during the author’s time (1834). And although it makes for fascinating reading, the book is now largely ‘put down’ by post-colonial theorists who are troubled by the Orientalist mind-set of Lane and his colleagues.

Nevertheless, taken at descriptive value, it – as so much of the colonial literature of exploration – provides views both into lifestyles of local people at the time and their (presumed) thoughts – as well as mindsets of the authors themselves; of colonial mentality.

The following excerpt describes common practices during Orthodox Easter time in Egypt (1834), and includes a recipe for kishk, which was eaten as part of the celebrations for Good Friday. Kishk is still a very popular dish, eaten year-round, and I remember the delicious kishk that was made in the Izba (hamlet) in Upper Egypt where I lived while doing research.

Salted fish ( فسيخ), lettuce, and onion are also eaten as part of this spring celebration, which is commonly organized as a picnic.  It is said that these practices can be traced back to ancient Egypt, though I cannot find solid information about this.  Nevertheless, it is a celebration that encompasses both Muslims and Christians and transcends socio-economic strata.

An izba in Upper Egypt, similar to the one in which I lived. Kishk was a great treat, as made by some of the older women.  It is a dish that transcends religious sects and socio-economic strata, as well as ethnicities.  Source - Village by Ahmed Moustafa

An izba (hamlet) in Upper Egypt, similar to the one in which I lived.  The green matter on the roofs is fodder, crop leavings, and oven fuel.  Source – oilpaintingsonline.com, the painting is by Ahmed Moustafa, of Alexandria.

Of particular interest in the following description, is the melding of Muslim, Coptic, and non-religious activities into one ceremony – called, as still today,  Shamm al-Nasim (شم النسيم – literally, ‘sniffing the breeze’).  Some of the activities described below are still found, while others, such as ritual washing with a particular plant, are no longer to be commonly found.

Until the presidency of Nasser (mid-20th century), there was a large Jewish community in Cairo and it is possible that the Jewish celebration of Passover, which takes place during the same time period in Egypt, also incorporated aspects of the Shamm al-Nasim celebration.

IT is remarkable that the Moos’lims of Egypt observe certain customs of a religious or superstitious nature at particular periods of the religious almanac of the Copts [Orthodox Christians of Egypt]; and even, according to the same system, calculate the times of certain changes of the weather.

Thus they calculate the period of the Khum’a’see’n [khamsiin], when hot southerly winds are of frequent, occurrence, to commence on the day immediately following the Coptic festival of Easter Sunday, and to terminate on the Day of Pentecost (or Whitsunday); an interval of forty-nine days.

Coptic and Arabic inscriptions in an Old Cairo...

Coptic and Arabic inscriptions in an Old Cairo church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Wednesday next before this period is called Ar’ba’a Eiyoo’b, or Job’s Wednesday. Many persons, on this day, wash themselves with cold water, and rub themselves with the creeping’ plant called raara’a Ei-yoo’b, or ghoobey’ra (inula Arabica, and inula undulata), on account of a tradition which relates that Job did so to obtain restoration to health. This and other customs about to be mentioned were peculiar to the Copts; but are now observed by many Moos’lims in the towns, and by more in the villages.

The other customs just alluded to are that of eating eggs, dyed externally red or yellow or blue, or some other colour, on the next day (Thursday); and, on the Friday (Good Friday), a dish of khul’tah, composed of kishk*, with foo’l na’bit**, lentils, rice, onions, &c.

Washing before a meal, a necessary task. Source: Lane, Manners and Customs…

* Kishk is prepared from wheat, first moistened, then dried, trodden in a vessel to separate the husks, and coarsely ground with a hand-mill: the meal is mixed with milk, and about six hours afterwards is spooned out upon a little straw or bran, and then left for two or three days to dry. When required for use, it is either soaked or pounded, and put into a sieve, over a vessel; and then boiling water is poured on it: what remains in the sieve is thrown away: what parses through is generally poured into a saucepan of boiled meat or fowl, over the fire: some leaves of white bete, fried in butter, are usually added to each plate of it.

** foo’l na’bit are Beans soaked in water until they begin to sprout, and then boiled.

On the Saturday, also, it is a common custom of men and women to adorn their eyes with kohhl. This day is called Sebt en-Noo’ r (Saturday of the Light); because a light, said to be miraculous, appears during the festival then celebrated in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

A custom termed Shemm en-Nesee’m* (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khum’a’see’n. 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, 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.

This year (1834), they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the nesee’m: but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to smell it.

*شم النسيم

Source: Edward William LaneAn Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Written in Egypt during the Years 1833, -34, and -35, partly from Notes made during a Former Visit to that Country in the Years 1825, -26, -27, and 28. In Two Volumes
Posted in Colonial, Colonialism, Cuisine, Egypt, Food, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Tasty Congolese Relish with Manioc Leaves – Isombe y’umwamba

Cooking palm nuts to soften the nuts for oil e...

Image via Wikipedia


Yesterday I went out into the parcel’s garden and noticed that both palm oil trees have nice clumps of palm oil kernels that are growing.  They should be ready in a couple of weeks, when I’ll do another blog about their use here in central Africa.

The following blog details a very popular use of manioc leaves cooked in palm oil, and manner of extracting oil from the kernels that is still found in some areas of the county –

The following recipe – ‘Manioc leaves with crushed palm oil kernels‘ – is popular throughout central Africa and combines three of the most important local ingredients – manioc leaves, fresh oil from palm nuts, and ground nuts.

Batwa men operating a traditional oil palm press in the eastern Congo

Here are the ingredients – quantities are pretty much up to you:

Fresh manioc leaves –
Oil palm nuts –
Fresh peanuts –
Garlic –
Palm oil
Red pepper –
Salt –

Preparation requires a bit of work. First, you must collect a basket of tender manioc leaves:

Tender, young cassava/manioc leaves

Then, you need to pound the manioc leaves into a paste, like this:

Pounding the manioc leaves can take a couple of hours, and is a task often shared by several people.  This is Eileen, daughter of one of the staff, pounding manioc leaves.

In the meantime, send your menfolk off to collect a bunch or two of fresh palm nuts:

Oil Palm nuts. 

You prepare the oil palm nuts by removing the flesh from the kernels and pounding it – then, you squeeze the crushed fibers between your hands, using the liquid, but throwing away the fibers.

Groundnuts you’ll probably have to buy fresh at the local market, unless you raise them yourself:

Groundnuts, not quite ready for harvesting. Source: Global ministries

Shell the groundnuts and crush them into a powder.

The garlic and leeks are not indigenous to central Africa, but were introduced during the colonial period and now are featured in many local dishes.

They are pounded together with the cassava leaves, once the leaves have been fairly well mashed.

The oil palm liquid and groundnut powder is also added and pounded/mixed in.

Some people also add tomatoes and green peppers.

The final mixture looks something like this:

Pounded manioc leaves. Source: shianlotta, flikr

The best way to cook is in a clay pot, but increasingly folks cook in aluminum pots, like this:

Isombe being cooked to the left, goat meat to the right, by project staff preparing for a wedding feast

You can add a little palm oil to the pot – but not too much, because you’ve already extracted some oil with the liquid of the fresh palm nuts.

Isombe y’umwamba (which means manioc leaves with oil palm) is always eaten with a pate – a thick porridge – and often in this manner:

Sorghum pate with isombe y’umwamba as a relish

Isombe is frequently served at the Hotel Lac Tanganyika, by way of presenting a much-loved traditional dish that is highly nutritious – and tasty!

Thanks to Yolanda, who asked me about this recipe here.

Posted in Africa-General, Cuisine, Food, Hotel Club du Lac Tanganyika2, Recipes, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Récent happenings Here in Burundi

I’ve been out of circulation for some weeks due to illness – soon to catch up/In the meantime, here is an interesting article on weaving in the old kingdom and nice photo of a very unhappy Manul cat. Sorry – computer problems here and will get back to you in  day or so.

(1) The Hidden Industry_ Weaving at the Workers’ Settlement _ Ana Tavares – Academia

· Le Manul ou chat de Pallas FB

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Ancient Lives: Papyrology for People Who aren’t Papyrologists


More and more manuscripts are now appearing online – and, as this one – invites everyone to join. “The site is an attempt to harness the power of the people in an effort to transcribe as-yet unpublished Greek papyri fragments from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt: Ancient Lives is a collaboration between a diverse collection of Oxford Papyrologists and Researchers, The Imaging Papyri Project, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project, the Egypt Exploration Society and the following institutions.

The papyri belong to the Egypt Exploration Society and their texts will eventually be published and numbered in Society’s Greco-Roman Memoirs series in the volumes entitled The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The best part, though, is that you don’t need to be a papyrologist to get in on the fun. You don’t even need to know Greek! (Although it doesn’t hurt…)

Source - Ancient lives

The interface for the transcription project is incredibly user-friendly, even for non-specialists. I watched an entire classroom of NT Intro students (most of whom had never taken a day of Greek) spend an hour exploring the site and transcribing fragments. They were into it.

The site loads for you a papyrus fragment. You look at the letters on the papyrus (even for people who know Greek, that’s all they are at first) and try to match each one up with a letter or special character in the ancient Greek alphabet. Here [above is] a screenshot of a fragment I’m currently working on to give you an idea: transcribe The blue circles are letters that I have, or think I have, identified so far. The red circle is the current letter I am deciphering…

Originally posted on Let the Reader Understand:

A few months ago I was introduced to the University of of Oxford’s Ancient Lives papyri transcription project while TAing a class for Eric Smith. This morning I rediscovered it and have been having some fun transcribing ancient Greek fragments.

The site is an attempt to harness the power of the people in an effort to transcribe as-yet unpublished Greek papyri fragments from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt:

Ancient Lives is a collaboration between a diverse collection of Oxford Papyrologists and Researchers, The Imaging Papyri Project, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project, the Egypt Exploration Society and the following institutions.

The papyri belong to the Egypt Exploration Society and their texts will eventually be published and numbered in Society’s Greco-Roman Memoirs series in the volumes entitled The Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

The best part, though, is that you don’t need to be a papyrologist to get in on the fun. You don’t even need to know Greek! (Although it…

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Antiquity Imagined: The Remarkable Legacy of Egypt and the Ancient Near East


New Book –

“‘Knowledge is the ultimate addiction. What we cannot find in the directly observable world, we invent. With patience and erudition Robin Derricourt explores a prominent field of alternative knowledge, ‘the remarkable legacy of Egypt and the ancient Near East’, where theories proliferate which mainstream researchers either reject or ignore. Pyramid theorists, Egypt as part of a pan-African black civilisation, the search for the ten lost tribes of Israel: the author’s range is remarkable…

Originally posted on HARN Weblog:

HARN member, Robin Derricourt, has sent us notification of his latest publication:

Antiquity Imagined front cover

Antiquity Imagined: the remarkable legacy of Egypt and the ancient Near East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015)

 Outsiders have long attributed to the Middle East, and especially to ancient Egypt, meanings that go way beyond the rational and observable. The region has been seen as the source of civilization, religion, the sciences and the arts; but also of mystical knowledge and outlandish theories, whether about the Lost City of Atlantis or visits by alien beings. In his exploration of how its past has been creatively interpreted by later ages, Robin Derricourt surveys the various claims that have been made for Egypt – particularly the idea that it harbours an esoteric wisdom vital to the world’s survival. He looks at ‘alternative’ interpretations of the pyramids, from maps of space and time to landing markers for UFOs; at images of the…

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On the origin of Roman concrete


Interesting, from Per Storem

Originally posted on Per Storemyr Archaeology & Conservation:

The Pantheon cupola in Rome, made by Roman concrete some 2000 years ago. Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 The Pantheon cupola in Rome, made by Roman concrete some 2000 years ago. Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

You mix burnt lime, volcanic ash and sand/gravel. Then you have the famed concrete that made the Romans able to build the Pantheon cupola, or to make underwater constructions, like big harbours. And without Roman concrete, we may not have had our modern concrete, based on Portland cement, enabling us to build ever bigger, higher and deeper. But how was Roman concrete discovered?

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Gift of a Belgian Malinois Puppy

I’m very thrilled to have been given a Belgian Malinois puppy last week!  Several years ago, as some of you may remember, I did have a dog of the same breed – Hamdy by name; given to me by a Belgian who lives in the eastern Congo. Fantastic guard for me and for the goats:

Some of our goats going upcountry.

Some of our goats going upcountry.

Hamdy checking out the goats that are leaving; great guard, Hamdy.

Hamdy checking out the goats that are leaving; great guard, Hamdy.

Looks like Hamdy is counting the leaving stock.

Looks like Hamdy is counting the leaving stock.

But Hamdy could be so kind and loving - here, talking to me.

But Hamdy could be so kind and loving – here, ‘talking’ to me.

My new pup is also called Hamdy – named after H.1 who finally died.  Hamdy 2 is a lovely little puppy and quite stroppy; looks a bit like this pup –



Here are a couple of hunky videos on the breed – they really are quite fierce if left to their own devices; great guards and equally great companions:

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A Few [Security] Steps Back

So, we’re back to this – No one’s very happy about it; six or so years ago I returned to the house in this manner; and really thought we were on our way out of the problems.  Maybe not.



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What John H. Speke, Explorer, Can tell Us about Gum Arabic, 2 of 3

As the African explorers Livingston and Burton, the explorer Speke detailed the important uses of gum acacias in local life and in national and international markets.  The potential of gums for colonial powers [read colonial U.K.] reflects the market interests that could be gained by colonization or improved marketing in the areas through which they traveled.

Speke - source, Wikipedia

Speke – source, Wikipedia

The following entries are from ‘Adventures in Somali Land,’ by John Speke.  Discussed are the uses of gum arabic by local people and by animals, including frankincense and myrrh, and also the  use by  local women in fumigation:

Gum-trees, myrrh, and some varieties of the frankincense [tree] are found in great profusion, as well as a variety of the aloe plant, from which the Somali manufacture good strong cordage…

I went on shore and paid my respects to the Akil (chief) of the place, who lived in a small box-shaped stone fort, on the west flank of the village of Héis, which was very small, composed, as usual, of square mat huts, all built together, and occupied only by a few women, who made mats, collected gums, and stored the produce of the interior, as sheep, cows, and ghee, which their men constantly brought down to them [from higher altitudes], for shipping off to Arabia.9

Amongst the bush and trees there were several gum-producing ones, of which the frankincense, I think, ranked first. These gums are usually plucked by the women and transported to Aden. The barks of various other trees are also very useful; for instance, they strip down the bark of the acacia in long slips, and chew it until only fibres remain, which, when twisted in the hand, make strong cordage…

… Some of the poorer men are said to pass their whole lives without tasting any flesh or grain, but to live entirely on sour milk, wild honey, or gums, as they may chance to come across them, and they are almost naked; but notwithstanding this, disease is scarcely known…

During [my] journey the Somali pointed out some of their richest gum-trees, of which the finest in order is a species of frankincense, called by them Falafala, or Luban Maiti. The gum of this tree is especially valued by the Somali women for fumigating purposes, which they apply to their bodies by sitting over it, when ignited, in the same manner as Cashmeres sit over their little charcoal-pots to keep themselves warm when resting on their travels. They enshroud themselves in a large wrapper, place a pot with the burning gum between their legs, and allow the perfume to rise to every portion of their body simultaneously. We gave our guides five cloths for escort, and sent them away…

The people say that in their recesses and ravines acacias and other gum-trees grow as they do elsewhere. Gum only exudes in the dry hot season; and the confined air in the ravines is described as being so hot that people can hardly stay there, and many of the gum-pickers who do, become deaf in consequence of it…

Arab merchants and Somali, who had been gradually flocking in from about the 15th November; and as they arrived they erected mat huts as booths for carrying on their bartering trade. According to Herne’s investigations, the Somali took coarse cloths, such as American and English sheeting, black and indigo-dyed stuffs, and cotton nets (worn by married women generally to encase their hair), small bars of iron and steel, as well as zinc and lead, beads of various sorts, and dates and rice. In exchange for these, they exported slaves, cattle, gums of all sorts, ghee, ivory, ostrich-feathers, and rhinoceros-horns….

Finding myself reduced to the last stages of life, for no one would give me food, I went to a pool of water in a ravine amongst the hills, and for the last fortnight have been living there on water and the gums of trees. Seeing I was about to die, as a forlorn hope I ventured in this direction, without knowing whither I was going, or where I should come to; but God, you see, has brought me safely out.”…

Source – Adventures in Somali Land, by John Speke

The explorations of both Speke and Burton were enormously helped by the work of Mabrouki and Bombay whose efforts, until recently, have been very much sidelined –

While Speke and Burton were instrumental in bringing the source of the Nile to the wider world and were the first to record and map this section of Africa, the efforts and labors of Sidi Mubarak Bombay and Mabruki should be mentioned; Bombay was captured as a child near Lake Nyasa by slave traders and was sold to Indian merchants on the coast of Africa who took him to Sindh.[6] Thus he spoke Hindustani and after his master’s death he sailed back to Zanzibar where Speke and Burton met and hired him.[6]

Both spoke Hindustani and thus this greatly facilitated the travel in the interior as Bombay spoke several native languages beside Swahili. Speke in fact was much attached to Bombay and spoke highly of his honesty and conscientiousness. Bombay’s efforts in dealing with hostile tribes, interpreting and keeping the safari crew on track was a great help to the expedition.

Less is known of Mabruki, the other caravan leader, but he was later known as Mabruki-Speke, and like Bombay became one of East Africa’s great caravan leaders and was also a member of the Yoa tribe like Bombay. Because of Speke’s recommendations both Bombay and Mabruki served on Henry Stanley’s 1871 expedition to find Livingstone,

Source – Wikipedia, John Hanning Speke

Sidi Mubarak, date and photographer unknown. Source - RGS

Sidi Mubarak, date and photographer unknown. Source – RGS

[The role] of Bombay in exploration was recognised by the Royal Geographical Society of London, which presented Bombay a silver medal 1876 for his assistance to Speke as they strived to find the source of the Nile River. Bombay died in Africa in 1885 at the age of 65.

Source – Wikipedia, Sidi_Mubarak_Bombay

Posted in Agroforestry, Botany, Colonialism, Ethnography, Food, Richard Burton, Sudan | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment