Luxor’s Shamsy Bread: ‘Loaves of the Sun’

by

 The Shamsy Bread of Luxor, also known as Egypt’s Loaves of the Sun, is a bread of the sourdough variety.

Shamsy bread (photo: lorelledelmatto)

The three loaves of shamsy bread that I received as a gift from Luxor lay on the kitchen table. On their rustic-looking crust were etched mysterious criss-crosses that looked like a child’s depiction of the sun’s rays.

The Shamsy bread of Luxor

The shamsy bread, which literally means ‘the bread of the sun’, was baked in the village of Karnak in the Upper Egyptian Governorate of Luxor. For centuries Al-Karnak village has lain in the shadows of Luxor’s epic temple, Al-Karnak, whose history spans Egypt’s Pharaonic dynasties.

Egyptian bread

Shamsy bread is one of the oldest known forms of Egyptian bread. Temple walls carry depictions of similar looking bread, etched with the same lines that are drawn on this bread today.

Its very name evokes the sun deified by the Ancient Egyptians and under whose strong rays the bread dough is fermented. Shamsy bread is believed to have been offered as a sacrifice to the gods of Ancient Egypt.

(photo: thebanmappingproject)

To this day, shamsy bread is a trademark not only of Luxor, but of all of the ‘Said’ of Upper Egypt, and, as well, Sudan. It is commonly used to dip into milk or soups. It also lends itself, because of its flakiness, to being savoured with a piece of cheese or a beverage – which during the time of  the ancient Egyptians could have been either beer or wine.

Shamsy bread of Luxor (photo: magdaelmehdawy)

Shamsy Bread (photo: magdaelmehdawy)

The historian Herodotus (484 – 425 BC) mentioned Egypt’s ‘shamsy’ bread as being distinctive of the region of present-day Luxor (Thebes) as opposed to the breads that were then baked in the northern part of the country in the Nile Delta. He specifically mentioned its ‘sourdough’ characteristic, in which dough that was fermented in the sun was used to leaven the rest of the kneaded flour.

The book “The Pharaohs Kitchen, Recipes from Ancient Egypt’s Enduring Food Traditions” mentions that the “ancients would leave a ball of dough to rise in the sun before baking, producing a loaf that was dry and crusty on the outside and soft on the inside

 A staple of every household in Luxor, shamsy bread is sold in the market to tourists. But it remains much more than a touristic commodity, being a hallmark of authenticity and a point of pride for the women of Luxor, who are proud of their traditional bread and would never consider buying it ready-made from the market. If you’re not planning a trip to Luxor in the near future, here’s a way for you to make it at home!

Method of Baking Shamsy Bread

Shamsy bread is made of wheat flour and yeast dough. The loaves are round and measure some 30 centimetres in diameter and 15 centimetres in height.

(photo: kingarthurflour)

 Incisions are made at the edges of the loaves with a stiff straw before they are placed in the oven. These cuts in the bread allow fermented gases to escape.

Coptic Christians draw the incisions in the form of a big cross which cuts the surface of the loaf into four quarters.

Another variation is to have small incisions all around the edges, or three crescent-like slits, also around the edges.  

Loaves of Shamsy bread (photo: presidislowfood)

 Yeast is mixed with water in a big container and left to ferment overnight.

(photo: thebanmappingproject)

The following day, the fermented yeast is mixed with flour and water, and kneaded for about an hour.

It is then left in the sun to leaven and ferment for the span of about three hours.

Bread rising in sun

The distinctive aspect of shamsy bread is that the leavening of its dough takes place slowly over two stages, where the rest of the bread dough is fermented by the previously fermented part called sourdough.

The dough is then divided into small balls that are placed individually on clay trays and left for two hours under the sun before being placed in a stone or clay oven lit with wood.

The bread is left inside for about 15 to 20 minutes until it is thoroughly baked.

The loaves can be shifted around so as to brown evenly.

Egyptian bread in a stove (photo: magdaelmehdawy)

Shamsy bread can be stored in the freezer and cut in slices with a knife.

(photo: fatakat)

In my opinion, nothing beats shamsy bread, eaten with cheese and olives with your beverage of choice, or cut up as ‘croutons’ in a warm lentil soup in the winter.