Lighting the Holy Month of Ramadan - Lanterns

Cairo is an extraordinarily busy city. From morning to night, without stopping, the city buzzes with activity. Every year, however, there is one exception to that rule: Ramadan. During this month, the city and its fasting inhabitants, begin to lose steam in the middle of the afternoon. Just after the evening call to prayer, the whole city becomes very still. For those who have visited Cairo during any other time of the year, this is really a sight to see. For a very short time, everyone across the city is at home breaking their fast. As the meal - called an iftar - concludes, the city comes to life again with a bang, literally. The streets fill with the cacophony of firecrackers, as children celebrate the start of the night. But beyond the fasts and celebrations, perhaps nothing symbolizes the month of Ramadan more than the lantern. 

The lanterns, called fanoos in the singular (فانوس), are hung throughout the city. From balconies, on ropes across alleyways, and in the windows of homes, the city glows with the celebratory light of the fanoos. The word itself was probably adopted from the Coptic/Greek word hanos indicating that the term was likely borrowed from the Coptic Christian population. While this origin is far from certain, neither is the origin of the lantern itself.

One story, which I have heard many times, was that a Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bil-'Amr Allah had forbidden women from leaving their homes. (I intend to explore more of this caliph's famous eccentricities, which were enormous, when I post about his mosque later on.) During his reign, women were only permitted to go outside during Ramadan. Even then, they had to be accompanied by a male member of the family, and a young boy had to walk ahead of the woman with a lantern to announce that she would be passing along the street. It is said, that once al-Hakim's reign ended and women were allowed to go about their affairs in a more relaxed way, the population continued to associate the lantern with Ramadan and began to decorate with them. Whether this is the true story or not, we may never know. But I have a theory of my own...

Most people after breaking their fast, go out and enjoy an evening of fun and celebration. Shortly before sunrise, those fasting eat a heavy meal, called sahuur (سحور), in order to prepare for the coming day's fasting. All of this nighttime activity would have required lighting that probably wasn't as necessary in non-Ramadan months. During the rest of the year, I would imagine that people generally went to bed relatively early in order to wake for morning prayers and begin laboring before the hot afternoon. (Although I can't prove this, there has been quite a lot of work done on the sleep schedules of pre-modern/pre-electricity societies that suggests this idea is likely true. Although some research also suggests a mid-night wake period in which people ate, prayed, or participated in various other activities). In any case, according to my idea, the wide-spread use of the lantern was an almost uniquely Ramadan tradition and thus accordingly became associated with the holy month. Just my thoughts.

As you can see in the pictures below, the Ramadan lamps come in many shapes, materials and colors. Enjoy!

 Colorful fanoos outside of a shop. (Photo by author)

Colorful fanoos outside of a shop. (Photo by author)

 (Photo by author)

(Photo by author)

 A personal favorite... A lantern of the homemade variety. (Photo by author)

A personal favorite... A lantern of the homemade variety. (Photo by author)

The last two images are of lanterns inside mosques. While not directly related to Ramadan, mosque lamps help to show the role of light within the context of worship. Now lighted with electricity, they used to hold oil in their bases, which was burnt. The lantern is traditionally inscribed with the Qur'anic sura, Surat al Nur (Light) which reads: 

"Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His light is as if there were a niche and within it a lamp: the lamp enclosed in glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His light: Allah doth set forth parables for men: and Allah doth know all things."

 Lamps hanging in the entranceway of Sultan al-Ghuri's complex. (Photo by author)

Lamps hanging in the entranceway of Sultan al-Ghuri's complex. (Photo by author)

 A lighted mosque lamp. (Photo by author)

A lighted mosque lamp. (Photo by author)