When lanterns are hanging all over the streets, their colourful lights brightening the streets and lightening people’s souls with delectation, people realise Ramadan is knocking on their doors. A few weeks before Ramadan, streets turn into one big lantern market for people to buy Egypt’s most significant commodity connected with the holy month.
In the heart of Cairo’s El-Sayeda Zeinab district, one cannot help but inhale the scene of children’s thrill as they buy new lanterns, of an old lady taking her grandchildren to get them their favourite “fanous”, and of popular Ramadan songs playing in the background.
El-Sayeda Zeinab is one of the neighbourhoods known for years to sell various types and sizes of “fanous Ramadan” (lanterns). Just a small walk through the middle-class district, which is full of handmade lanterns workshops, one finds lanterns of all shapes and sizes. A few days before Ramadan, the market becomes filled with families following the tradition of buying a new lantern before the month of fasting begins.
Despite this year’s price hikes, which also affected the price of lanterns, people didn’t give up on their tradition. Prices of lanterns range from EGP 20 to EGP 750; some giant ones go all the way up to EGP 5,000.
Egyptians were the first to introduce the tradition of lanterns to the Arab world. The story of how the idea of the lantern became attached to Ramadan in Egypt differs, but they all agree on one thing: it started during the glorious Fatimid period.
Some say it started when the Caliph used to take his “fanous” while looking for the crescent moon as an indication of the beginning of the holy month. Back in the day, when people saw their Caliph walking at night with his fanous, they enthusiastically waited for the announcement of the beginning of the month.
Others say that when Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah used to go out looking for the crescent moon, he would be accompanied by many children, each holding a fanous, to help light the way.
Another story says that back in the Fatimid era, women were only allowed to leave their homes during Ramadan, and when they would leave, young boys would walk ahead of them, holding a fanous to alert men that there would be women passing by.
Photos by Asmaa Gamal