When asked what Sham El Nessim meant to them, most of the picknickers either smiled or sighed and said simply: "Spring".
Springtime in Cairo – 'a breather' from Egypt's troubles
Springtime in Cairo amounts to a week or two when the city is warmer than it was in winter, but not as hot as it's about to get. That's why Sham El Nessim, a national holiday celebrated by picnicking and sailing on the Nile, is so popular.
Associated with the spring harvest since the days of the pharaohs, it falls on the Monday after Coptic Easter according to the ancient Coptic calendar. The most idiosyncratic of Egyptian holidays, Sham El Nessim transcends religion, has nothing to do with politics and gives everyone an excuse to sit outside.
This year, however, the festivities attracted controversy. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Council, Mufti Abdel Raham Al Barr, announced that congratulating Copts on the occasion of Easter was haram since it contravenes Muslim beliefs regarding Jesus Christ. Wishing Copts a Merry Christmas is fine, the mufti added, since Muslims recognise Christ's birth, but not his crucifixion and resurrection.
TV talk shows took up the issue and the Mufti of Al Azhar, Sawqi Allam, officially responsible for determining what is haram, stepped in to reassure everyone that Islam allows "greeting Copts on [all] their holidays as they are partners in the nation, and there are no objections to sharing their joys and comforting them in times of grief".
The Al Azhar remarks were welcomed at a time when divisive rhetoric is on the rise. A Salafi sheikh who appears on Al Hafez, a privately owned religious TV channel, has expressed "disgust" at the prospect of eating with Copts. "Oh, and their smell … man, I just don't like them," he confessed.
Such vitriol holds little resonance, judging by the number of families streaming through the great wrought iron gates of Cairo's Botanical Gardens, one of nature's last refuges in the overcrowded capital. By 11 on Monday morning, the park was filled with average citizens, Muslim and Christian, totally-veiled, semi-veiled and unveiled women, men in galabiyyas and western dress, bands of boys playing football and bevies of pigtailed girls looking on.
Sitting on the ground in convivial clusters, everyone set out the same modest, traditional meal of salted fish, sprouted beans and spring onions and many invited me, the only foreigner in sight, to join them.
Asked what they thought about wishing Copts a "Happy Easter" a Muslim picnicker said: "They [the Muslim Brothers] want to separate us. They are troublemakers."
"Look", said a Coptic man pointing to the crowds on the grass. "We know we are all in this together." A Muslim grocer called the controversy "empty talk". "Everyone is responsible for their words and free to say what they want," said a Muslim cab driver. "And I am also free to disagree with them."
Much was made of President Mohamed Morsi's decision not to attend the Coptic Easter Mass. Hosni Mubarak never went either, sending his son, Gamal, to Christmas mass instead. Mubarak did, however, declare Coptic Christmas (on January 7) a national holiday in 2002, a gesture towards the religious minority that has typically been poorly represented in government. In 1968, Gamal Abdel Nasser attended the inauguration of St Mark's Cathedral in Cairo as "president of all Egyptians", a phrase Mr Morsi used to describe himself following his June 2012 election.
But today that's more "empty talk", say the president's Muslim and Christian critics, since Islamists dominate his government and instances of sectarian violence have gone uninvestigated or unpunished. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, at least 100,000 Christians have left Egypt since the Muslim Brothers came to power and several embassies report a rise in migration applications.
Dozens of policemen were on duty at the Botanical Gardens. Riot police lorries lined a street flanking the park, suggesting someone anticipated problems. But people were out for a breather, not a brawl, a chance to gather their strength for summer. Problems were what they came to escape, including the political and religious squabbles that have so absorbed Egypt's post-revolution leaders.
Indeed, most picnickers, when asked what Sham El Nessim meant to them, either smiled or sighed and said simply: "Spring."
Maria Golia is the Cairo-based author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt