The spirit of Ramadan: A visit to Attareen in Alexandria

Nashwa Farouk, Wednesday 27 Mar 2024

Al-Ahram Weekly walks down memory lane in the traditional Alexandria neighbourhood of Attareen and experiences the joyful spirit of Ramadan.

photos: Nashwa Farouk


If you are sometimes overwhelmed by feelings of nostalgia and want to relish the old spirit of Ramadan, then you should consider visiting Alexandria’s historic neighbourhood of Attareen.

This is an old quarter of the city where nostalgia for the good old days is tinged with a sense of authenticity and identity. Traditions are typically observed in this old quarter, which is now bedecked in lights and all the decorations of Ramadan, particularly the traditional lanterns that hang in the streets and front of every house in celebration of the holy month.

Shops selling lanterns stand beside small kiosks selling rosaries and copies of the Quran, producing the mixed aura of cheerfulness and devotion that marks the holy month. Alleyways are typically dotted with makeshift carts selling traditional food and drinks that typically spread during Ramadan and also give a sense of festivity.

It is no wonder that this old quarter of the city has been the destination of many people seeking to indulge in the festive atmosphere, which may be missing in many modern quarters and today’s gated communities.

The neighbourhood is also home to such landmarks as the historic Attareen and Al-Giyushi Mosques, where the first Friday prayers in Alexandria were once held.

Many visitors who go to relish the Ramadan spirit in this historic area of the city seem to have lost their interest in shopping, however. The majority now stop at window shopping, perhaps having been frustrated at the rising prices of handmade lanterns, unaffordable for many seeking to decorate their homes.

Shops stand bedecked in traditional copper lanterns, giving an aura of authenticity, but they remain noticeably lacking in customers.

“This year is marked by the recession, and the market is stagnant,” said Khaled Yousri, the owner of a lantern shop in Attareen. “I hardly sell two lanterns a day. Last year, I used to sell several on a daily basis, as customers preferred to buy new lanterns in celebration of Ramadan,” he added.

“This year, most visitors seem satisfied with what they already have, and our business has almost come to a halt. Raw materials have become very costly, and that is the reason why we have had no other choice but to raise prices.”

Yousri said that the sharp rise in the prices of materials was largely due to “the greed of traders and tycoons”.

“The price of copper has become exaggerated as a result, and this has affected the local manufacture of lanterns,” he said.

The price of a lantern starts at around LE500 and can reach up to LE3,000 or LE4,000 for the larger sizes depending on the amount of copper used. Some bigger lanterns maybe even more expensive.

Lantern shops, however, are not the only ones suffering from rising prices. Shops selling antiques and chandeliers are also suffering due to the rising price of copper and the slow market.

Yousri said he hoped “the government will control the tycoons of the scrap industry who monopolise the market creating this crisis.”



The Attareen neighbourhood lies in the heart of Alexandria and is one of the oldest in the city.

Originally devoted to the sale of perfumes and spices as its name indicates, the neighbourhood emerged as a market with the advent of Islamic rule in Egypt. It was famous for its trade in spices and was also known as one of the best places for perfumes in the world.

However, over time, and particularly after the 1950s, shops selling perfumes and spices started to disappear and were gradually replaced by others selling antiques and original furniture. The neighbourhood soon became a hub for antiques and furniture that were both valuable and costly.   

The neighbourhood’s narrow lanes and ancient walls still carry the fragrance of the past. Walking down the narrow streets, one cannot but be struck by the historic allure of the area. Classic chandeliers hanging beside side lights, statues, paintings and lanterns feature in many shop windows, bespeaking past splendour and awaiting customers.

At 10 am, we passed a slender man of medium height sitting on a chair in front of his shop in Attareen. He was bent on polishing an old brass statue in the hope of catching a customer. His face was marked by the deep lines of old age and the frustration of the recession.

The neighbouring streets of Sardina, also known for selling antiques, do not seem to be faring better than Attareen. Both are similarly affected by the recession.

Haj Mohamed Hassan, an antiques dealer in the area, explained that the sudden rise in the price of copper has increased the prices of antiques, bringing sales almost to a halt.

“Many antiques are made of copper, and many customers find them unaffordable,” Hassan said. “Many customers have turned to more affordable modern alternatives, mostly made of cheap material in China. We cannot ignore the fact that the invasion of modern styles has dealt classic antiques a serious blow.”

Most of the modern products are “made of cheap materials brought from China and assembled in Egypt”, Hassan went on. “They are cheaper and sometimes look more attractive to customers.”

Ahmed Adel, another owner of an antique shop in the area, concurred.

“This is supposed to be the high season for selling antiques since this is the time when many people are preparing for their weddings during the feast at the end of Ramadan,” Adel said. “But 90 per cent of those customers have abandoned classic antiques due to their high prices, and modern alternatives have become more appealing in price and allure.”

Another nearby vendor joined the conversation, adding that “we never even had time to rest at this time of the year in the past.”

“Our shops used to buzz with customers buying lanterns to celebrate the holy month and those planning for marriage during Eid. Many people wanted to adorn their houses with valuable antiques. Now, we hardly sell anything because of the invasion of the market by modern products. Nobody appreciates classic antiques anymore even though the modern alternatives are never as valuable.”

The drop in antique sales, according to Adel, has not just harmed shops and dealers but also affected the whole industry.

“Classic antiques are handmade, and the talented professionals who work on making them are being threatened with the loss of a profession that has long contributed to the economy,” Adel said.

“Many of those professionals have either changed their careers or resorted to assembling modern artefacts,” he added. “Many stay jobless, and a whole profession is being lost in the process.”


Mahmoud Hassan, another dealer in the area, has his own take on the problem. He does not blame modernity for the slow market in antiques. For him, prices have the upper hand.

“Our products have seen a sharp rise in prices,” Hassan said. “This is the main issue we have to deal with because it is unfair for customers, mostly young couples preparing for marriage, to have to buy a couple of side lights for LE2,000 instead of LE600 amid such economic woes.”

“It is the sharp rise in the prices of raw materials that we have to address. Most customers normally look for the cheapest products.”

Tamer Abdel-Salam, a regular customer in the neighbourhood, agreed, adding that he had come with his fiancé to buy some classic decorations that he hoped would add elegance to their house, but he was soon put off by the high prices.

“We have a passion for antiques, but now we can only afford the modern alternatives,” Abdel-Salam told Al-Ahram Weekly as he headed to a shop selling modern chandeliers. “I know classic handmade ornaments are more valuable and durable, but how can we afford them?”

Iman Farag, who plans on getting married during Eid, has similarly gone for modern furnishings for her house.

“They are just more affordable,” she reasoned. “I always dreamed of a house with many valuable ornaments, but the prices are just shocking.”


In the face of such market challenges, Haj Hassouna Mohamed, one of the veteran antique dealers in the neighbourhood, remains adamant about the value of his goods.

“No matter how much modern fashions invade the market, modern styles always remain a craze while classic ones have survived over the years,” Mohamed said. “Modern is no more than a bubble and is destined to disappear. Authenticity never dies out; instead, it grows more valuable over time.”

“The value of a copper artifact lies in the amount of copper in it, and it can even be sold on that basis.”

“Modern artifacts are made of cheap materials, like plastic, glass and cardboard, which are not sustainable, but classic decorations live over the years and retain their value.”

On the main street in Attareen, there is a stylish store bedecked in unique art pieces in the form of Islamic arabesques embedded with precious stones that take the beholder back to the times of the Fatimid and Mameluke heritage.

Ibrahim Al-Safti, who runs an arabesque antique shop in the area, said that he specialises in the manufacture of arabesque ornaments that are redolent of an Arab and Islamic past dating back to the Mameluke and Fatimid eras and the Andalusian heritage.

“The art of arabesque depends on geometric shapes and drawings of plants and animals,” Al-Safti told the Weekly. “It is a very sophisticated form of art that serves clients who appreciate and cherish this type of art.”

“Arabesque is one of the classical arts employing high-quality materials like the bones of turtles and woods from rare trees. It needs professional craftsmen who have skills in designing these precious pieces of art.”

The value and craftsmanship of arabesque pieces seem to have helped this form of art survive over the centuries.

“The boom in modern decorations has hardly affected our profession because we have tried to develop our style by including some modern elements,” Al-Safti said. “This mix has given our artifacts a special allure to customers.”

“Besides, modern cannot replace classic because the latter is made of higher-quality material,” he added. “Classic handicrafts may take up to three months of artistic work and creativity to produce — a far cry from the industry of modern decorations.”

The main challenge facing the arabesque industry, however, remains the fact that the number of professionals in the field is shrinking.

“The industry loses with the death of the owner of an arabesque shop because he cannot be replaced. There are very few professional craftsmen left in the field, or at least that is the case in Alexandria,” Al-Safti explained.

Arabesque is one of the industries that should be passed down through the generations. It should be taught to children at the hands of their parents and grandparents, but according to Al-Safti, this is not the case now in Alexandria.

“Most of those working in arabesque now are located in the old quarters of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar and Al-Ghouriya in Cairo, and they have probably inherited the craft from their parents,” Al-Safti went on. “If veteran professionals do not pass the craft onto their children and grandchildren, it will die out. This is the real danger to the industry.”

Few people are now interested in learning the arabesque craft, he said.

“Arabesque is an art appreciated by the elite, and there is much demand for it in countries like Morocco, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, who understand its value,” Al-Safti said.

 “Tradesmen come all the way from Tunisia and Algeria to buy arabesque pieces to sell them in their countries since they know that Egypt is a good market for rare antiques and handicrafts.”

Many vendors expressed the view that Egypt remains an attractive market for Arab traders and customers seeking handicrafts and classic ornaments.

“We are grateful that our work now depends on attracting customers from the Arab countries who appreciate the Egyptian heritage and authenticity,” Karim Al-Tayer, the owner of an antique shop, said.

Though the market this year in Attareen has been slow, all agreed that authenticity never dies out.

On the corner of Al-Laithi Street in the neighbourhood stands the entrance of an old property featuring wonderful designs. The gate features classical paintings, and once inside the building visitors are enchanted by an array of shining crystal and copper chandeliers and classic ornaments in Egyptian, Italian, French, and Greek styles, each exuding a different aura and past splendour.

“Antiques will remain the best bet, as ‘old is gold,’ as the saying goes,” said the owner of one antique shop in a confident voice.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: