By candlelight

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 9 Aug 2022


Just imagine a balmy summer night, a beautiful dinner table set for two on the roof of a posh hotel and the clear starry, starry night, smiling at the sliver of a moon. The strumming of music is heard from a distance and the waves of the waters below are swaying to its sounds. The perfume of jasmine fills the air, a cool western summer wind caresses your hair.

A perfect setting you would think, but wait. No. What? No candles. Impossible.

Ah, here comes the maître D with a box of matches lighting the candles everywhere. Suddenly the whole setting is transformed and the soft glow of candles flickers and dances with joy. Now it is a perfect setting.

Candles add immensely to any ambiance, indoors or outdoors — in your living room, dining room, bedroom, patio, bathroom and you are sure to feel your stress begin to disappear. Candles are truly fascinating objects, so ancient and universal symbolising passion, peace and spirituality.

Little is known about their origin, but what is known is that the first candles were developed by the ancient Egyptians over 5,000 years ago. They used rushlights or torches to light up the dark, by soaking the pithy core of reeds into melted animal fat. Ingenious. What they did not have was a wick.

Then came the Romans and added a wick in 150 BC. What do historians claim? The Romans invented the candle by dipping rolled papyrus repeatedly in melted tallow, (animal fat), or beeswax. Who would you say invented the candle?

There is an aversion amongst the West to claim all that is Egyptian is in origin to Greece or Rome, so they can advance their theories of Western civilisation. Are they aware that Greeks and Romans invaded Egypt for centuries? Why would the Romans use papyrus anyway?

It sounds better that Western civilisation started west of the Mediterranean, and not further east. Is that what they call racism, shameful and shaggy, but still going strong?

No matter. Facts are facts and the initial use of candles is attributed to ancient Egypt as the earliest form of primitive lighting.

It is the Chinese however, who have the earliest surviving candles, made from whale fat, during the Qin Dynasty around 200 BC. Early Chinese candles were rolled in paper tubes using rolled rice paper as wick and wax from an unknown indigenous meat.

At about the same time, India was making candles by boiling the fruit of the cinnamon tree. Japan’s candles were made of wax extracted from tree nuts in the eighth century.

The world was consumed with candle-making. A major improvement occurred when beeswax candles were introduced in Europe. Beeswax burned pure and clear, and emitted a pleasant smell that did not elicit a repugnant odour when burned, like tallow.

By the 13th century candle-making became a guild craft in England and France. To this day we have the National Candle Association. The growth of the industry started earnestly in the 18th century. One could easily claim that it may be the oldest manufacturing industry of mankind.

Did the introduction of the light bulb in 1879 mean the end of candle-making? Well, it did begin to diminish, but not for long.

By the 20th century candles enjoyed a new popularity during the first half of the century. The growth of oil and meat-packing industries brought an increase in the by-products of the basic ingredients of candle-making, like paraffin and stearic acid, (produced from animal fatty acids). Stearin candles remain popular to this day.

The popularity of candles remained steady until the mid-1980s when they began to be used as decorative items, gifts and mood-setters. Sales went up sky-high.

Candles were suddenly available in a broad array of colours and consumer interest in scent candles began to increase.

We not only wanted candles, but we wanted scents to go with them.

The 1990s witnessed an unprecedented surge in the popularity of candles. For the first time in a century new candle waxes were developed.

In the US, agricultural chemists began to work on soy bean wax, a softer, smoother burning wax than paraffin. On the other side of the globe, efforts were underway to develop palm extracts for use in candles.

A candle is not just a candle to flicker and glow for a while. There must be something more to it. Why has it occupied minds for thousands of years? Why are candles, no longer a source of light, but a gift of light?

What is this magic that surrounds the flame of a simple candle? Try to gaze at it for even less than a minute and it will cast a lovely, warm relaxing emotion within.

During the pandemic, which never seems to end, with days and nights of boredom, the lighting of candles serves as a useful mood booster, according to psychologists and therapists. The National Candle Association, (NCA) issued a safety message in June 2022 regarding the growing number of candles used nowadays, that contain flammable material.

A candle is a friend that wishes you well. It is there to help during times of joy and sorrow. An emotional state exists between us. It heals, relaxes, removes stress, emphasises faith, prayers, and vigils.

What is a birthday celebration without candles, or a wedding, anniversary, graduation, Christmas, Hannukah, Buddhist rituals, etc?

By all means, let there be light. Candlelight.


“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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