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Khamsin in hieroglyphs
X1 Z4

The south winds
Dust storm over Libya (NASA/EOS)

Khamsin,[1] chamsin or hamsin (Arabic: خمسين ḫamsīn, meaning "fifty"), more commonly known in Egypt as khamaseen (Egyptian Arabic: خماسين ḫamāsīn, IPA: [xɑmæˈsiːn] ), is a dry, hot, sandy local wind affecting Egypt and the Levant; similar winds, blowing in other parts of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula[citation needed] and the entire Mediterranean basin, have different local names, such as bad-i-sad-o-bist roz in Iran and Afghanistan, haboob in the Sudan, aajej in southern Morocco, ghibli in Tunis, harmattan in the western Maghreb, africo in Italy, sirocco (derived from the Arabic šarqiyya, "eastern") which blows in winter over much of the Middle East,[2] and simoom.[citation needed]

From the Arabic word for "fifty", these dry, sand-filled windstorms blow sporadically in Egypt over a fifty-day period in spring, hence the name. The term is also used in the southern Levant (Israel, Jordan), where the phenomenon takes a partly different form and blows both during spring and autumn.[2]

When the storm passes over an area, lasting for several hours, it carries great quantities of sand and dust from the deserts, with a speed up to 140 kilometers per hour (87 mph; 76 knots), and the humidity in that area drops below 5%. Even in winter, the temperatures rise above 45 °C (113 °F) due to the storm. The sand storms are reported to have seriously impeded both Napoleon's military campaigns in Egypt as well as Allied-German fighting in North Africa in World War II.[citation needed]

In the southern Levant it takes the shape of an oppressive weather front with hot temperatures, large quantities of dust impeding visibility, and strong winds during the night.[2] In the Book of Exodus of the Hebrew Bible, the ruah kadim (‏רוח קדים‎) or "east wind" is the cause of the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21).[2]


Khamsin can be triggered by extratropical cyclones that move eastwards along the southern parts of the Mediterranean or along the North African coast from February to June.[3]

Regional aspects[edit]



In Egypt, the khamsin usually arrives in April but occasionally can occur between March and May, carrying great quantities of sand and dust from the deserts, with a speed up to 140 kilometers per hour, and a rise of temperatures as much as 20 °C (36 °F) in two hours.[citation needed] It is believed to blow "at intervals for about 50 days",[4] although it rarely occurs "more than once a week and lasts for just a few hours at a time".[5] A 19th-century account of the khamsin in Egypt reports that

These winds, though they seldom cause the thermometer of Fahrenheit to rise above 95° in Lower Egypt, or in Upper Egypt 105°, are dreadfully oppressive, even to the natives. When the plague visits Egypt, it is generally in the spring; and the disease is most severe in the period of the khamáseen.[6]

The same account relates that Muslims in Egypt "calculate the period of [khamaseen] ... 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."[7] This period roughly coincides with the Jewish Counting of the Omer, which also lasts for an interval of 49 days, between the springtime feasts of Pesach (Passover) and Savuot (Weeks), as well as the Christian Eastertide which Copts also refer to as khamaseen.

In history[edit]

During Napoleon's 1798 Egyptian Campaign, the French soldiers had a hard time with the khamsin: when the storm appeared "as a blood[y] tint in the distant sky", the Ottomans went to take cover, while the French "did not react until it was too late, then choked and fainted in the blinding, suffocating walls of dust".[8] During the North African Campaign in World War II,

Allied and German troops were several times forced to halt in mid-battle because of sandstorms caused by the khamsin... Grains of sand whirled by the wind blinded the soldiers and created electrical disturbances that rendered compasses useless.[9]


The word khamsin is considered a recent import to Palestine, probably introduced during the Mandate for Palestine period by British soldiers who had served in Egypt.[10] Here the khamsin (חמסין‎) is more often known as simoom (سموم) by the Arabic speaking population, or by the Modern Hebrew name sharav (שרב‎) by Hebrew speakers. [11]

Khamsin and sharav are scientifically defined as different phenomena, a sharav having three characteristics: a temperature higher than 27°C, a temperature exceeding the annual average by at least 5°C, and humidity levels 10% lower than normal.[10] However, this usage is strictly academic, and the two terms are used interchangeably by common speakers of Hebrew.[10]

For information about the period when the khamsin affects Palestine, see above under "Egypt" (Counting of the Omer, the 49 days between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot).

Cultural references[edit]

Khamsin in Egypt in 2007
  • In the book Warlock in the Ancient Egyptian series by Wilbur Smith, Nefer, Taita and Mintaka have to hide in a cave until this storm passes whilst escaping the Hyksos
  • Khamsin was the name of a magazine published during the 1970s and 1980s by a group of Israeli Middle Eastern exiles in Europe, including members of Matzpen.[12]
  • Khamsin was the title of a 1982 Israeli film about a clash between a Jewish landowner and his Arab workers in a small farming village in the Galilee.[13] The film was selected by the Israeli Film Board as their nominee for the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1983.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Khamsin at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. ^ a b c d Philologos, Fifty Days and Fifty Nights, in The Forward, 4 April 2003. Accessed 18 May 2018
  3. ^ Giles O.B.E, Bill. "The Khamsin". bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2008-08-15.
  4. ^ OED online.
  5. ^ Humphreys, Andrew (2002). Cairo. Victoria: Lonely Planet. p. 19.
  6. ^ Lane, Edward William (1973 [1860]). An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. With a new introduction by John Manchip White. New York: Dover Publications. p. 2.
  7. ^ Lane, p. 488.
  8. ^ Burleigh, Nina (2007), Mirage, New York, Harper, p. 135.
  9. ^ DeBlieu, Jan (1998), Wind, New York, Houghton Mifflin, p. 57.
  10. ^ a b c Dr. Amos Porat, "Between Khamsin and Sharav", at 07:51. Israel Meteorological Service, 18 April 2021. Accessed 27 May 2023.
  11. ^ Philologos (April 4, 2003). "Fifty Days and Fifty Nights". JewishForward.com. Archived from the original on 2007-04-26. Retrieved 2007-02-26.
  12. ^ "Khamsin". Matzpen. Archived from the original on 2014-02-19. Retrieved 2008-08-15.
  13. ^ Kronish, Amy. "Arabs on Israeli Screens". Archived from the original on 2007-01-26. Retrieved 2007-02-26.
  14. ^ "Oscar Film Critical of Israel". The New York Times. January 24, 1983. Retrieved 2007-02-26.

External links[edit]