Egypt’s Ramadan: 30 days with a difference

Ahram Online , Wednesday 17 Jun 2015

Lanterns, Sohour drummers, kids on the streets and endless nights. Ahram Online looks into the archive of the Holy Month.

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Sighting the Ramadan Crescent, Cairo 1936

In Egypt, you know it's Ramadan when lanterns decorate the streets, little children sing lyrics from ancient Egypt and people stay up all night on the streets. 

Ramadan is the month when Muslims remember the Holy Quran was first bestowed upon the Prophet Mohamed.

For 30 days, life as you know it is put on hold, and the Ramadan rituals unfold day by day.

It usually begins by the Roeiat al Helal (sighting of the crescent) procession that dates back centuries. The procession starts off in Cairo and is duplicated in other governorates. In 1931, the Ahram newspaper highlighted several government processions in detail, where in Sharqiya, it was more lavish that year and included lots of folk artists, as well as the government music band and officers who led the march until it reached the local Religion Court House, where the supreme judge and the governor were present.

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Sighting the Ramadan crescent in 1936 Cairo

Sighting the Ramadan Crescent in the late fifties

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The official state ceremony that follows the sighting and the announcement of the beginning of the holy month 1971

Sighting the crescent was indeed a crucial ceremony for it declared when Ramadan would start, and with it the fasting. Sighting the crescent is a classic Ramadan trait that is still in practice, but now there are no processions involved, as it is announced online and on national television.

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A traditional star shaped Ramadan Lantern in 1957

Lanterns are famous Ramadan traits that started off in Egypt then lit up the world. According to National Folklore Archive, Egypt first used the Ramadan lantern on 5 Ramadan 358 Hegira (24 July 968). On that day, the Fatimid Caliph El-Moezz entered Cairo at night and the populace carried 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.

Ramadan Lanterns 1944

The lantern quickly acquired an entertainment value, as children began roaming the streets at night, carrying lanterns, asking the neighbours for sweets and chanting “wahawi ya wahawi iyyaha,” which some researchers believe is an old pharaonic song to the moon deity.

Lanterns took all shapes and forms, survived centuries and crossed borders, and are still decorating streets in Egypt, accompanied by the same ancient lyrics.

Mesaharati, who is originally a fisherman in the coastal village of Ras Al-Bar 1943

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Traditional Mesaharaty with a rather non-traditional drum 1949

Another Ramadan ritual is the pre-dawn drummer who roams the streets before dawn prayers to remind people to eat and pray before fasting. Al-Mesaharaty is known for his small drum and unique voice, usually a man, but nowadays women are often seen in this trade. Traditionally speaking, each district has its own local Mesaharaty. If you decrease the volume of your television, you will definitely hear their voice these days.

Ramadan Cannon

The Cannon of Ramadan is another Egyptian tradition that is said to have started in 1460 AD when Mamluk Sultan Al-Zaher Seif Al-Din Zenki Khashqodom is said to have fired a cannon that coincided with the sunset prayers, and eventually it became a habit, to announce the breaking of the daily fast at sunset. But the Cannon of Ramadan was also used in other Muslim countries. In Ahram's issue in 1900, the front page explains that the cannons of Ramadan were fired in Jerusalem and the Aqsa mosque was packed with people praying and rejoicing. It followed the Christmas celebrations that had just ended that year in Beit Lahm.

On a parallel note, Ramadan is always the peak of the cultural scene in Egypt, one that is not limited to religious ceremonies and Sufi chants. In 1952, Ahram newspaper published an advertisement for iconic comedian Ismail Yassin's latest play in Ramadan. The theatre troupe, named the Kings of Art, included cinema and song divas Tahia Carioka and Shadia.

Throughout the centuries, and regardless of the socio-economic situation, Ramadan in Egypt reflects generosity, festivity and piety. A month that reminds us always that kindness is the only road to heaven.

Ramadan Karim

Compiled by Amira El-Noshokaty 


Al-Ahram Digital Archive project 

Al-Ahram digital photo archive 


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