Cannons & charity banquets: Uniquely Egyptian Ramadan traditions

Sherry El-Gergawi, Saturday 13 Jul 2013

As Muslims across the Arab world gear up to observe the fasting month, Egypt will enjoy its own centuries-old Ramadan traditions

Ramadan Cannon
Ramadan Cannon (Picture: courtesy of ainnews website)

During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Egypt, it is customary to mark both sunrise and sunset with the firing of a cannon.

The tradition is said to have begun in 1460, when Mamluk Sultan Al-Zaher Seif Al-Din Zenki Khashqodom received a cannon as a gift from a German acquaintance. Testing the cannon, the sultan’s soldiers fired it at sunset, coinciding exactly with the maghreb call to prayer that marks the end of the day’s fast.

City inhabitants believed that this was the sultan’s way of alerting them that the time to break the fast had arrived. Recognising the potential for boosting the sultan’s popularity, Muslim scholars and a handful of dignitaries visited him in his residence, where they suggested that the cannon be fired every day throughout the month to mark the beginning and end of the daily fast.

Khashqodom was reportedly not at home when they arrived, but his wife, Haja Fatemah, met with the visitors and later relayed their request to her husband. If the story is true, it would explain why the soldiers that man the cannon to this day still refer to the imposing field gun as “Haja Fatemah.”

A competing story about the tradition’s origin casts Mohammad Ali – the nineteenth-century founder of Egypt’s royal family – in the role of the fifteenth-century Khashqodom.

According to this narrative, the cannon used to be fired from Cairo’s famous Citadel – with live ammunition – until 1859. But when the city’s nearby areas became inhabited, they began using blank rounds instead.

Regardless of how the custom began in Egypt, Syria adopted the practice in the late nineteenth century. In later years, a number of other Islamic countries followed suit.

Banquets (Picture: courtesy of Ahl Misr Zaman on facebook)

Charity banquets, or ma’idat al-rahman, represent another longstanding Ramadan tradition in Egypt, by which wealthy patrons provide their less well-off co-religionists with large meals with which to break the fast.

In her book Hamasat Masriya (‘Egyptian Whispers’), Jihan Mamoun wrote that the tradition dates back to one of Egypt’s early Muslim rulers, Al-Layth Ibn Saad, known for his wealth and piety.

According to another legend mentioned by Mamoun, Ahmad Ibn Tulun, Egypt’s tenth-century ruler, began the tradition. It all began, the story goes, when Ibn Tulun invited a host of dignitaries to a sumptuous banquet on the first day of Ramadan.

When they arrived, however, they found that their beneficent host has also invited the city’s poor to eat with them. Ibn Tulun was so pleased with the event that he repeated the practice every day for the remainder of the fasting month.

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, several of Egypt’s Fatimid rulers kept the tradition alive. Egypt’s first Fatimid ruler, Caliph Al-Moezz, for example, is said to have sponsored Ramadan banquets big enough to feed some 100,000 people.

The chroniclers may have been exaggerating. But according to their accounts, the dar al-fitra – the state’s Ramadan kitchen service – produced a whopping 100,000 pots of food daily throughout the holy fasting month.

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