Ramadan Lanterns in Egypt

Ramadan Lanterns

By Heba Fatteen Bizzari

A very traditional Ramadan Lantern

Notation: The traditional Ramadan Lantern displayed at right can be purchased from our online store.

Ramadan is the main ritual for all Muslims in the world, but to the Egyptians its the magical month that, accompanied with all the mysterious traditions that have become associated with Ramadan, often has no intrinsic link to religion. Some believe that many of the traditions are even incompatible with Islam. One of these magical traditions are Ramadan lanterns (Fawanees, sg. Fanoos or Fanus), which are now frequently made from recycled tin cans or plastic lanterns that play the latest popular music.

Lanterns and lamps of various kinds, hues and degrees of brightness, have always been special to the Egyptians. Many stories of their origins have been told. One story has it that the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim Bi-Amr Illah wanted to light the streets of Cairo during Ramadan nights, so he ordered all the sheikhs of mosques to hang Fawanees that could be illuminated by candles. As a result, the Fanoos became a custom that has never been abandoned.

A more modern Ramadan Lantern being admired by a young Egyptian girl

Another story states that, during the time of the Caliph Al Hakim Bi-Amr Illah, women were not allowed to leave their houses except during Ramadan, but even then they had to be preceded by a little boy carrying a copper Fanoos. The Fanoos was then used as a tool to announce the arrival of a woman to caution men in the street to move away. As the laws against women softened, women were allowed to go out as they wished but people liked the idea of the Fanoos, and so it became a tradition that little children carry them in the streets everyday to play.

A third story even relates that the lanterns came from a completely different religion. Some believe that the use of lanterns was originally a Coptic Christian tradition celebrated during Christmas time (Coptic version), when people used to celebrate with colorful candles. This story explains that, as many Christians converted to Islam, they took this tradition with them in the form of lanterns made of tin and lit with candles.

Ramadan Lanterns today come in a variety of shaps and sizes

Regardless of the validity of these stories, the Fanoos remains a very unique symbol of Ramadan to Muslims and Christians alike. It has passed from generation to generation, and is today explicitly associated with children. It's popular image is children playing out in the streets during Ramadan, happily swinging their Fawanees and singing a nonce rhyme in colloquial Egyptian Arabic which was composed by Ahmed Sherif, who is one of the renowned music writers and composers. The song goes like this:

Wahawi ya Wahawi (metaphorically meaning the light of fire)Iyuha (an unknown word which is used to rhyme in between)Ruht ya Shaban (you have gone, O Shaban referring to the month before Ramadan)Wi Gheet ya Ramadan (You have gone, O Ramadan)Iyuha.Bint el Sultan (The daughter of the Sultan)IyuhaLabsa el Guftan (Is wearing her caftan)IyuhaYalla ya Ghaffar (For God the forgiver)Iduna el Idiya (Give us this seasons gift)..Yalla ya Ghafar.

Ramadan lanterns being displayed in a toy store

During the few days before Ramadan arrives, children become excited and are more insistent about having a Fanoos. In fact, most of them can hardly wait to start swinging and singing. Thats why, exactly one week before Ramadan, Egypt streets are transformed into workshops for tinsmiths to produce as many Fawanees as possible.

The Fawanees makers are usually very humble people. They; as many other craftsmen in Egypt; work in small areas, in just any corner, in alcoves or just simply under corrugated iron shelters to produce the tens of thousands of Fawanees needed to meet the demand during Ramadan. Actually the Fawanees makers usually start between six to nine months before Ramadan depending on the demand of the market forecasts.

A larger Ramadan Lantern

Walking in Ahmed Maher Street, in Bab Zuwayla, one gets to meet many like Morsy Abdel Dayem, a 32 year-old Fanoos maker who has been making Fawanees since he was 15. He sits in a small room, on the floor, with very basic tools, including a flame, and creates with his raw talent Fawanees with various shapes, colors, hues, and brightness.

A Fanoos usually ranges between 15 and 30 LE. Of course, there are much more expensive ones but that depends on the materials used to make the Fanoos and its size. In the past, the Fanoos was made of copper and brass, but now they are made of recycled tins, says Abdel Dayem. We used to make them only to fit candles. Things change, and therefore the quality also changes. We now have, besides the original Fawanees, the Chinese plastic Fawanees that play popular music. These are taking over the market, he says, "but maybe not as much as some people might think." Obviously, Egyptians have a keen sense of their heritage as well as their traditional local crafts.

During Ramadan, stores are full of Ramadan Lanterns

These Fawanees appeared a few years ago. We thought that the Fawanees market would be destroyed especially with the popular songs they play. Some have children singing the Wahawi song. Others play music of pop artists while others play the music of children's cartoons such as Bakaar. But as it turns out, they did not take over the market.. I guess its an iconic symbol that cant be replaced, he adds.

Today, the crowds during Ramadan remain strong in the shops and streets of Bab Zuwayla, Al Hussain, Sayeda Zainab and many other areas that sell Fawanees. The little ones are still parading in the streets, swinging their Fawanees, going from door to door singing wahawi ya wahawi.

By Heba Fatteen Bizzari