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Did you know that Fanous Ramadan, the Suhoor caller, and Iftar cannon all originate from Egypt?
That’s right. Egypt has contributed more than most people realize to the festivities and traditions of Ramadan across muslim nations in North Africa and Asia.
So in celebration of the holy month and our everlasting heritage, let’s dive into the origins of Egyptian Ramadan traditions and get the stories behind how these facets of Ramadan celebration began on the streets of Cairo.
Most of modern-day Ramadan traditions started in Egypt during the Fatimid period, but there’s a lot of discourse between historians about the specifics of when and how. These are the events that most sources agree on, though how and when it actually may forever be a mystery.
Nothing is more iconic than our Fanous which is now a popular way to celebrate Ramadan across the globe. But what’s the story behind these simple lanterns?
In 358 A.H./969 A.D., the fourth Fatimid Caliph, Al-Mu’izz Li-Din Allah, was expected to arrive in Cairo in the evening of the fifth of Ramadan.
To welcome the Caliph, his viceroy and military commander, Gawhar al-Siqilli, wanted to properly illuminate the path of the Caliph’s caravan. Al-Siqilli ordered citizens to hold candles and shelter them from the wind. Local ingenious craftsmen in turn created boxes to keep these candles from being extinguished.
As he walked through the city, the Caliph admired the design of the boxes that encased the citizens’ candles. They were made of copper, tin, or other similar materials, with stained glass and a wooden base.
Over the following years, the Fanous steadily grew in popularity after being used to illuminate the streets for muslims heading to mosques for evening prayers and for the Suhoor caller as well.
The origin of the word “fanous,” however, is a bit more peculiar. Like many other words across the two languages, this word is originally Greek. In fact, it’s a direct loan-out from the word “φανός” which is pronounced exactly the same and means lamp in Greek.
Roaming the streets with a small hand drum or an Arabic flute (Nay,) chanting religious phrases and poems, calling for people to wake up and have the last meal of the day before fasting. This role was understandably integral before the age of technology.
That’s why the history of El-Mesaharati goes back even further than Ramadan lanterns. There aren’t any solid records of how the first Suhour calling tradition existed but it’s commonly known that the first person to call for the last meal before fasting was Bilal Bin Rabah.
The tradition as we know it, however, didn’t fully take place till the Abbasid period when Bin Is’haq, the governor of Egypt at the time, walked the streets of Cairo around Suhour time in the year 238 A.H./853 A.D.
Since then, this ritual shifted over the years and included children accompanying the caller while singing and holding Ramadan lanterns. During his rule, Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah also decreed that military officers would knock on doors between midnight and Fajr prayer to wake them up for Suhour.
While there are reports dating back as far as 859 A.D., the majority of historians attribute the tradition of firing a cannon to announce Iftar time to Egypt.
The first account of a cannon being fired the same time as Maghrib was actually by accident! The Mamluk Sultan Khashqadam was testing a cannon he was gifted by one of the governors and fired the cannon right at sunset. Having been audible across the city, the people gathered at the Sultan’s palace to thank him for the gesture and celebrate the beginning of the holy month.
The ritual was cemented during the Ottoman period in 1853 A.D. when two cannons in different locations were habitually fired at Iftar; one in Abbasiya area, and one in the Citadel. The location was then changed to Mokattam Hill to reach larger areas, and settled there till date.
We as Egyptians hear how much impact our country and culture has had on the world very often. People from all over the world revel at its heritage and could jump through hoops for a chance to experience our culture.
However, this knowledge is often very conceptual, only scratching the surface of just how rich our history is. Like these stories, there are hundreds more that describe rituals not popular across the world that emerged from Egypt.
If you’ve found this information to be as enriching and fascinating as we did, share this post on social media and spread some Egyptian pride!
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