Ramadan in Egypt: Lanterns of light
by: Usama Bastawy
For Muslims around the world, the holy month of Ramadan is a time when people fast between dawn and sunset, perform more prayers, read more Qur’an, give more sadaqah (voluntary charity), and worship more than at any other time during the year.
Muslims around the world perform the same types of worship in the same way. However Ramadan traditions vary from one country to another and even from town to village. For Egyptians, the holy month of Ramadan is the most special occasion of the year. The saying goes, ‘If you haven’t seen Ramadan celebrated in Egypt then you haven’t seen celebrations!’
Before dawn, the Musaharti starts his job. The Musaharati is the person who wakes people up to have their Sahur (pre-dawn meal). Walking in the streets drumming on a small drum, sometimes singing and sometimes shouting, he ensures everybody wakes up for Sahur.
A few days before the start of Ramadan, and all the way to the end of the month, streets get very busy with people rushing to buy Ramadan specialities. The artistic pastries, cookies and cakes such as Konafah, Basbousah, and Katayef were first introduced by the Fatimids, and are available everywhere. Qamar Eldin (apricot juice) crowns every table in every home, in addition to Medamis (fava beans), Zabadi (yoghurt) and delicious and colourful jars of Torshi Baladi (home-made pickles).
In some parts of the country, especially in large cities like Cairo, social solidarity is expressed in the form of “charity banquets”. Wealthy businessmen pay their Zakat (annual alms) by providing food for the poor and passers-by who cannot afford the means to break their fast. Almost every street corner has tables and chairs set up with free food for anyone in need.
As the sun sets over the old city of Cairo, a great silence falls. Suddenly, the roar of four ancient cannons in Saladin Citadel shakes the whole city, announcing Iftar (break of fast). Thousands of mosques call the faithful to Maghreb prayer, the adhaan ringing out of loudspeakers, radios, and televisions to shatter the silence.
Mosques are full of worshippers at the five times of prayer, especially during Taraweeh prayers. You can hear the beautiful sound of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Most Great) wherever you go.
During Ramadan the many ancient mosques and medieval neighbourhoods of Cairo are all decorated with fanous Ramadan (Ramadan lanterns). Every mosque, building, street, lane and alley is lit up.
The traditional fanous are shaped from tin, wire rings and coloured glass, and lit by a candle. Plastic battery-operated versions are available these days, but they lack the charm of the original.
There are many different stories about the origins of the fanous. The most interesting story dates from the reign of the Fatimid Caliph, Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah. Apparently women were only allowed to go outside their homes during Ramadan, and they were preceded by a little boy carrying a copper lantern so that men in the streets would move away. But even after the laws were relaxed, people liked the lanterns so much that their children would carry them in the streets every Ramadan. Since then, fanous has always been an integral part of Ramadan in Egypt.
However, the most probable origins of fanous were described by Al-Maqrizi. He traces it back to the Coptic Christians who celebrated Christmas by decorating the streets of ancient Egypt with colourful candles. The tradition of celebrating with lights goes back even further to the torches used by the Ancient Egyptians, which was continued by the Coptics using candles, and endures today with Fanous Ramadan.
After 30 days of fasting for Ramadan, Egyptian Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr in grand style. A cannon is fired at dusk, launching three days of festivities in which people wear new clothes, visit friends and family, prepare huge feasts and give charity to the poor.
The transport systems are jammed with people travelling back to their families. Felucca (sailboat) rides on the river Nile are a special feature of Eid celebrations around Cairo.
A central part of Eid celebrations is delicious food. Egyptian bakeries and stores are filled with kahk, cookies filled with nuts and coated in powdered sugar. Special Eid dishes also include qatayaf, (stuffed pancake dessert), kanafeh (dessert made from cheese, shredded wheat, & sugar syrup), koshary (a rice and pasta dish), and mahshee (various stuffed leaves or vegetables).
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