At 10am, the Egyptian zoo in Giza – one of the most popular venues for Sham El-Nasim
celebrations – was already packed. Lines of visitors stood waiting to buy tickets, chatting happily with one another as they awaited their turn to enter the garden.
Inside, the atmosphere was festive. Families sat on blankets, eating and talking with one another. Children ran around the garden, playing hide-and-seek and begging their parents to buy them candy.
"I've been working here since 1986, and I think that the turnout today is actually higher than usual," says Sami Kiryazi, who works in a shop for developing photos at the zoo. "This is a special occasion for Egyptians, and nothing will change that."
It's all about smelling fresh air – that's why thousands of Egyptians flock every year to celebrate the 4000-year-old Sham El-Nasim spring festival.
Sham El-Nasim, which literally means "smelling the breeze," has traditionally represented a major event for Egyptians. A tradition passed down to today's Egyptians by their ancient counterparts, the holiday draws Egyptians from all walks of life to go out and enjoy the mild spring weather before the stifling heat of summer sets in. During the day, there is no park or public space throughout Egypt that is not inhabited by celebrants.
Great lovers of food, the Egyptians have also come up with a special Sham El-Nasim menu, which includes the smelly – and occasionally deadly – Fiseekh, the Nile fish that is cured especially for the occasion. Other food items associated with the festival are eggs, fish, spring onions, chickpeas and lettuce.
The holiday is not, however, without its critics.
Ultraconservative Islamists have decried the event as un-Islamic, stressing that Muslims should only observe Muslim holidays, everything else being considered haram (sinful). This year, with Islamist parties dominating Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliament, calls for a boycott of Sham El-Nasim have grown louder.
A couple of Facebook pages have appeared recently that include Fatwas (religious decrees) from various Muslim scholars condemning the festival. One site, the Salafvoice, run by the Salafist preacher Yasser Borhami, discussed the "danger" of celebrating Sham El-Nasim, calling it a "Christian, Jewish and Pharaonic tradition" not to be observed by devout Muslims.
It would appear, however, that such calls to shun the much-loved holiday have fallen on deaf ears.
Since early Monday morning, millions of Egyptians countrywide – armed with picnic baskets and with their families in tow – set out for various public parks and gardens to enjoy the day.
In one of the Giza zoo's grassy areas, a couple of elderly men sit quietly playing backgammon.
"We love Sham El-Nasim," said one of the men, Ali Attia. "This talk about it being a sin is rubbish. We're Muslims and we're here enjoying it, and you'll find Christians doing the same. This is an Egyptian – not a religious – holiday."
One family, sitting on the ground munching on herring, another traditional Sham El-Nasim delicacy, agreed.
"Why would Sham El-Nasim be a sin?" asked Mervat Ali, a mother of two. "This is a spring festival. What's wrong with that?"
But while most Egyptians appear to reject the fundamentalist view of Sham El-Nasim, they are nevertheless spending less money on the occasion – a fact that can be largely attributed to the ongoing global economic crisis that has hardly left Egypt unscathed.
Toy seller Mohamed Hatem, for one, says that while the number of celebrants has remained constant, people generally don't have as much money to enjoy it as they used to.
"There aren't as many buyers as there were in the old days," says Hatem. "I suppose the country's economic situation is taking its toll on the people."
Across the street from the zoo lies the Orman Garden, another popular site for Sham El-Nasim festivities.
Manal Osama, who works at the garden's ticket box, pointed to the deluge of visitors that had arrived since the morning.
"Two more hours and the place will be completely full," she told Ahram Online. "Nothing has changed."
Inside the garden, the atmosphere is no less festive than it was at the zoo. One family, coming from the Upper Egyptian city of Esna, explained that Sham El-Nasim provided them with a chance to unwind after all the year's stresses.
"We work so hard during the year," said Medhat Omar, a young father. "Sham El-Nasim is a good time to de-stress; to go out in the sunshine and enjoy the day with the family."
A Coptic-Christian family sat next to them, similarly enjoying a picnic on the grass. One of them, Soha Nissim, said they were trying to enjoy the holiday, but that the death of Coptic Pope Shenouda III – who passed away in March – had put a damper on this year's festivities.
"This is the first Sham El-Nasim without Pope Shenouda, and it's very hard for us," she said. "We decided to come out anyway, but many of our relatives stayed home since they're still grieving."
Manar Badran, a young wife who is several months pregnant, meanwhile, also lay on the grass, relaxing and enjoying the sunshine.
"We usually celebrate Easter by going Alexandria," she said. "But since I'm pregnant, we decided to stay in Cairo this year."
Her husband, Sherif ElMennawi, chimed in: "We're Muslims and would never do anything to make God or Prophet Mohamed angry. But I don't believe Sham El-Nasim is haram. We're not hurting anyone, are we?"
On the Nile, in front of the El Gezira Garden, families filtered in and out, with many lining up to rent ferries for short river excursions.
Kamal El-Zayat, looking flushed from the warm sunshine, stepped off one ferry with his four children.
"Maybe Sham El-Nasim is slightly sinful because in Islam you're not allowed to celebrate other people's holidays," said El-Zayat. "But Islam is all about your intentions, and I don't give the holiday any religious significance – so that means it's okay."
Millions of other Egyptians, meanwhile, appeared to share El-Zayat's ambivalence. By midday on Monday, the zoo had attracted some 110,000 visitors, who continued to arrive in droves to celebrate the ancient festival.