Folk: The Ramadan lantern

National Folklore Archive (NFA), Saturday 13 Jul 2013

The Ramadan lantern, or fanous, is a time-honoured decoration that started on Ramadan to welcome a Fatimid Caliph in the year 968

Fanos Ramadan (Photo by Bassam El-Zeghoby)

Ramadan is the Muslem holy month where the Quran was bestowed upon Prophet Mohammed. The month often known as the month of piety and charity, fasting from dawn to dusk and refraining from vanity. Among the unique aspects of Ramadan in Egypt is the lantern that decorates most of the Egyptian streets during this season.

The Ramadan lantern, or fanous (Greek for lantern), is a time-honoured accompaniment of the holy month. Before electricity became widespread, kerosene lanterns were the common lighting method. A century or so ago gas lanterns were seen in every house. They came mostly in two sizes known as number 5 and number 10.

Nowadays the Ramadan lantern is normally associated with children, who take to the streets in Ramadan nights carrying candle-lit lanterns and singing the famous rhyme, “wahawi ya wahawi iyyaha,” which some researcher believe is an old pharaonic song to the moon deity.

In one version of the song, the children say, “if it were not for Ramadan, we wouldn’t have come, or bothered to get our feet tired, o merciful God.” In another version, they say, “the sultan’s daughter... iyyaha, is wearing a caftan... iyyaha, with tussels... iyyaha, let’s go get it... iyyaha.

Egyptians are said to have first used the Ramadan lantern on 5 Ramadan 358 hegira (24 July 968). On that day, the Fatimid Caliph al-Mo’ezz entered Cairo at night and the populace carried torches and candles as they went out to welcome him. In order to shield the candles from the wind, some of them placed the candles on a wooden platform and wrapped the platform with palm fronds and leather.

The lantern quickly acquired an entertainment value, as children began roaming the streets at night, carrying lanterns and asking the neighbours for sweets. The children were allowed to stay up late during Ramadan, and some of them would accompany the mesahharati (pre-dawn drummer signalling the last moments when it is ok to eat) in his round around town.

At one point, Fatimid rulers issued a law requiring shop and house owners to clean the streets in front of their property and hang a lantern on their doors all night. Then Caliph al-Hakim (996-1021) ordered women not to leave their houses at night unless accompanied by a boy carrying a lantern. He also ordered lanterns to be hung at entrances of the haras (neighbourhoods) and imposed penalties on those who failed to do so. This led to a boom in the lantern business and to the appearance of many new shapes and sizes.

Women used to stay up late in Ramadan, usually gathering around an older, female story-teller. On their way home, a servant would lead the way carrying a big brass oil lantern. Policemen were also told to carry lanterns during their nightly patrols.

The man who makes the lanterns is called samkari (welder), or fawaniski (lantern man) or samkari fawanis (lantern welder). Welders acquire their appellation from their line of business. For example, the samkari baladi (counter welder) makes big pots. The samkari istanbulli (Istanbul welder) makes coffee and tea pots. The samkari afrangi (Frankish welder) makes metal furniture and kitchen appliances. The samkari maramma (fixing welder) does maintenance work.

There are many types of Ramadan lanterns. Fanous morabba’ refers to a four-sided lantern, which can be called edel (straight) or mahroud (bent) or abu loz (almond shaped) or abu erq (branch-shaped). There is also famous abu welad (father lantern), mosaddas (six-sided lantern), abu negma (star-shaped lantern), shakket el-battikh (crescent-shaped lantern). Other names for the Ramadan lantern include abu hegab (amulet lantern), abu dallaya (pendant lantern), tayyara (airplane lantern) and saroukh (rocket lantern).

The grandest of these is abu welad, which is an oversized lantern incorporating four smaller lanterns, one at each corner. Too big for a toy, it is usually used to decorate shops.

Although lanterns appear only in Ramadan, the production of lanterns is a year-round industry. The lanterns are usually stored in warehouses in Taht al-Rab’, al-Ghuriya or Birket al-Fil and sold in bulk in Ramadan.

Hand-held lanterns became particularly popular in the times of the Fatimids (tenth to twelfth centuries), but the modern form of the lantern perhaps appeared near the end of the nineteenth century. Most lantern makers live in al-Darb ala-Ahmar and Birket al-Fil, and they usually begin making lanterns right after the end of Ramadan, collecting material and cutting them up. The work culminates in the few months preceding Ramadan.

The shape of the lantern changed rapidly. At first, the lantern was little more than a tin can with a candle inside. But soon glass was integrated into the device, and airing grids introduced to allow the air to circulate. Eventually, coloured glass was introduced and the tin panelling became more decorative, incorporating calligraphy in some instances.

In recent times, more elaborate forms were designed for special occasions. The lantern known as parliament, for example, is a copy of a chandelier that was used in the parliament in the 1930s. The fanous Farouk, named after King Farouk, was designed especially for his birthday. The court was said to have bought more than 500 lanterns of this type to illuminate the palace during the king’s birthday celebrations.

Data compiled by Haitham Younis

Ramadan Kareem

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