Ramadan lanterns light up Egypt's nights

An Egyptian family looks to buy a Ramadan fanoos, a traditional lantern popular during the holy month of Ramadan, at a shop in Sayyida Zainab district, central Cairo. [Khaled Desouki/AFP]

An Egyptian family looks to buy a Ramadan fanoos, a traditional lantern popular during the holy month of Ramadan, at a shop in Sayyida Zainab district, central Cairo. [Khaled Desouki/AFP]

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Amina Wehbe stands amid an abundant array of Ramadan lanterns in the large outdoor market of a Cairo neighbourhood.

She plans to purchase a number of lanterns to give away to family and friends, but with the variety of shapes, styles and prices on offer she is finding it difficult to make her selections.

Ramadan lanterns are popular with Egyptian families, who buy them for their children, and Egyptian markets offer a range of traditional and modern styles to choose from.

The lantern buying season begins in early Shaaban, with lantern stalls springing up everywhere.

Wehbe, a principal of a private school in Cairo, said she has fond memories of Ramadan lanterns from her own childhood, when her father would buy her a new lantern each year.

"At the time, metal and copper lanterns decorated and adorned with glass were the only ones available," she said. "As the years passed by, I kept this tradition until I got married and had children. Then I would buy them for my children, and now I buy them for my grandchildren."

A distinctly Egyptian tradition

Mohammed Arafa, who teaches history at Cairo University, said the Ramadan lantern is a distinctly Egyptian tradition that goes back to the dawn of Islam. In those days, he said, a lantern was used to light the streets and mosques and was called "the scandalmonger" because it reveals its bearer in the dark.

As to how lanterns came to be associated with Ramadan, Arafa said there are several versions of the story, but they all date back to the Fatimid era.

The best-known version goes like this, he said: "The Caliph al-Moez Lideen Allah al-Fatimi entered Cairo at the start of Ramadan and the locals greeted him bearing lanterns. During later years, he would go out in the last days of Shaaban to try to spot the Ramadan crescent, accompanied by children who would light his path with lanterns, chanting songs and religious hymns, thus linking lanterns to Ramadan and children."

Numerous musicians from past and present generations have sung about Ramadan lanterns and the joy they bring to children. The most famous of these songs is "Hatou al-Fawanees ya Wlad" (Children, Bring Over the Lanterns) by the late Mohammed Fawzi, which is traditionally broadcast on television channels and radio stations during the fasting month.

Lantern-making is an artisanal trade centred in Old Cairo neighbourhoods such as al-Ghouriya, al-Azhar, al-Darb al-Ahmar and Sayyida Zainab. Some family names such as Abu al-Adab, Issa and Abdul Jawad, have even been linked to this profession, which has been passed down from one generation to the next.

Lantern sales remain stable

Abdul Rahman al-Qutb of the Cairo Chamber of Commerce said sales of Ramadan lanterns are typically unaffected by market fluctuations or the state of the economy.

This is because they are linked with Ramadan rituals and children love them, he told Al-Shorfa.

"Sales can be slow but they never completely stop," he said. "This year, for example, has witnessed an increase in the popularity of locally-manufactured lanterns, with a decline in imported lanterns."

Imported lanterns generally cost between 10 and 60 Egyptian pounds ($1.42 and $8.53), he said. Locally produced lanterns usually start at 15 Egyptian pounds ($2.13) and can retail for thousands of pounds based on their size and the materials that go into their manufacture.

Cairo lantern merchant Khaled al-Shishi told Al-Shorfa his biggest lantern was six metres tall and sold for $1,000.

The lantern market tries to reinvent itself each year by keeping up with the world of entertainment, sports and politics, he said.

"This year, for example, there is demand for lanterns shaped as bearded men wearing white jilbabs, but what is on offer suits every taste and age category," he said.

The traditional lantern, fashioned from metal, tin or copper, has remained the symbol of this profession as it competes with imported styles, he said, adding that despite the decline in lantern exports, Egyptian merchants have seen high demand for lanterns this year.