Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ramadan Lanterns -- Fawanis (sing. Fanous) of Egypt and Beyond

A young Palestinian Muslim girl walks in an alley of Jerusalem's old city holding a traditional Ramadan lantern while celebrating with other children the announcing of the holy month of Ramadan on Tuesday, Aug. 10 2010. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

I somehow only "discovered" Ramadan lanterns and their traditions, or at least took particular note of them, this year. That surprises me, as festivals of light, and their expressions in candles, lights, and lanterns are of particular interest to me. Nor is it my first Ramadan. I am, however, delighted to discover, or take note of them, in part thanks to the opening photograph and the ones below, from Ramadan 2010.

A Musaharati, dawn awakener, lights up a lantern before touring the streets with his drums to wake observant Muslims for their overnight 'sahur', last meal, before the day's fast in Sidon's Old City in south Lebanon just before dawn August 26, 2009. (REUTERS/ Ali Hashisho)

A Palestinian potter engraves the expression in Arabic "Ramadan Karim" as he puts the final touches to a clay lantern at his workshop in Gaza City on August 17, 2009, ahead of the start of the holy month of Ramadan. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

An Egyptian family looks to buy a "Fanus Ramadan", a traditional lantern popular during Ramadan, at a shop in el-Sayeda Zaynab district of downtown Cairo, late August 28, 2008. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

A Palestinian Muslim man decorates an alley of Jerusalem's old city with festive lights in preparation for Ramadan on Tuesday, Aug. 10 2010. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

A little more research uncovered more exemplars, and also explanations, and issues. The lanterns are typical of Egyptian celebrations, but have spread to other countries, particularly those nearby. Though the exact origin of the tradition is unknown, it fits well with the general importance of light as part of many human endeavours and celebrations.

The following photos are by Sherif Sonbol, and accompany an article, Lights of faith, in Al Ahram Weekly, from Ramadan 2009 (20 - 26 August 2009, issue #961). I have intercut the photos and the article in full below. Author Giovanna Montalbetti includes what I would have wanted to say on the topic, and does so eloquently.

Lights of faith
Giovanna Montalbetti examines the origins, and wonder, of the Ramadan lantern


Nothing is quite as comforting as light. Since the beginning of time man's deepest fears and worries have seemed smaller in its presence. Light is the archetype for all that is good and powerful in cultures worldwide. No other physical phenomenon has its spiritual quality. It is part of what Carl Jung called the universal "collective unconscious". From the first fires to our modern, electrically lit cities, light has not only enabled us to prosper, but provides solace for the soul. Darkness, no matter how deep, can be overcome by one small, flickering flame.


The symbolism of light is complex. Light can be innocent, virtuous, or it can be blinding, destructive. It became a representation of the power of righteous gods in all cultures, a metaphor for the hope that despite the eternal struggle, good will prevail over evil.

Light plays an important role in celebrations across the world. In China, for instance, new year festivities end with the lantern festival, which takes place on the full moon of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Its origins date back 2,000 years. There are astonishing displays of lanterns at night, accompanying folkloric dances and other entertainment during the day.


Christians and Jews also use light to celebrate major festivities. During Advent, which marks the beginning of the Christian church's year -- its origins date from the late fifth century -- a candle is lit during each of the four Sundays prior to Christmas to celebrate Jesus Christ's birth.

Hanukkah, during which Jews commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by Judas Maccabeus in 165 BCE, is also celebrated by lighting candles in a special candelabra, the menorah.


Light is central in a number of religious texts. The Bible and the Torah include many references to the importance of light as a symbol and gift of God. The most famous is probably in Genesis 1:3: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light."

Surat An-Nur (Quran 24:35), 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."


Egypt resounds with the echo of these verses. Ramadan celebrations include the making and display of fawanis, lanterns made of tin and coloured-glass. There are different theories regarding the origins of this typically Egyptian custom which is spreading to other Muslim countries. According to some scholars the fanous (singular of fawanis ) developed as an extension of the torches used in the Pharaonic festivals celebrating the rising of the star Sirius. For five days the Ancient Egyptians celebrated the birthdays of Osiris, Horus, Isis, Seth and Nephtys (one on each day), lighting the streets with torches.


Others, such as Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi, in Kitab Al-Mawa'iz wa Al-I'tibar Bi Dhikr Al-Khitat wa Al-Athar, see fawanis as a development of the Christmas candles of the Copts. This would explain the name of the lamps, fanous, which can be traced back to the Demotic Greek term phanos, meaning beeswax candle.

Other sources suggest the present Ramadan fanous tradition began during the rule of Saladin (1174-1193 AD), though the most widespread account of the lantern's origins places it a little earlier, when Fatimid leader Al-Muizz li-Din Allah entered Egypt on 15 Ramadan of 358 AH (969 AD), and Egyptians greeted him with lamps and torches.


There is yet another version of the origins of the lantern, attributing its development to the Fatimid caliphate. The story goes that the caliph would check for the moon marking the beginning of the holy month accompanied by children who lit his way with lanterns while singing songs.

For centuries after, children would gather during Ramadan nights with their lanterns to play games, go around asking for nuts and sweets and to sing and listen to stories.


Although many of the modern fawanis are battery lit, these artefacts remain popular among both the young and old, though now Chinese imports, some including sound and motion, are increasingly replacing more traditional designs.


In a city that has amazed travellers for its spectacular illumination for a millennia, the fawanis are continuing the wonder. As local artists present their designs in tin and coloured glass, they share a bit of childhood magic with their customers, redolent of a more innocent age.


Less happily, Yolanda Knell, of BBC News, Cairo reported this year on the threat to Egypt's hand made lanterns from Chinese factory imports:

Egypt's lantern-makers threatened by imports from China.

Brightly-coloured lanterns are strung across Egyptian streets and lighting up homes and offices as part of celebrations for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

An Egyptian vendor prepares the display of traditional lanterns for sale at his shop in Cairo on Aug. 3, in preparation for the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Nasser Nasser/AP

The lantern - or fanoos - is an enduring symbol of the festivities and dates back more than 800 years.

Craftsmen make them from tin and glass and have passed down the trade from generation to generation.

In the run-up to Ramadan they can be found hard at work in the noisy, narrow alleyways close to Bab Zuweila in Cairo's old city.

"We start with tin sheets then we cut them, then another worker bends the sides and makes a ring to go around them and another assembles it," explains Ahmed al-Sunni as he squats over an open flame welding the metal.

"After that a glazier cuts the glass and we colour it and stamp it."

Ahmed's 21-year-old son, Ali, has been making his own set of decorated lanterns in what is known as a "watermelon" style - tinted red and green.

It is a point of pride for him to do the job well.

"We wait for this time from year to year," says Ali. "This is the high season when we make money at Ramadan. During this period, I sleep for just three hours a day."

The lanterns go on sale across the country but many people still enjoy coming to the old city to make their purchases.

Stalls are stacked high with hundreds of lanterns, some bigger than the customers.

Ahmed Al-Sunni hammers lantern panels together in his workshop

Cherished tradition

"You know it's something special," remarks one shopper. "Just like Christians have a Christmas tree, we have the lantern for Ramadan."

But in recent years, cheap, plastic lanterns and lantern-themed toys imported from China have become more popular with Egyptian children.

Most run on batteries. Some move or light up and play tinny musical tunes.

"Everything is from China," says Um Duwai, who sells the modern lanterns. She grins as she points out this year's best-sellers.

"There is one shaped like a mosque with lights and these ones which look like Hassan Shehata [the Egyptian football coach] and [the football player] Abu Treika. He is most popular."

"Our bride doll is also beautiful," she adds. "And we have Inspector Columbo from the TV. We were asking for it this year. Every year the Chinese make something new."

A boy shows off his Chinese-made figurine of Hassan Shahata which plays a tinny tune

Damaging trade

While the Chinese goods are fun, they have many critics who fear they could lead to the demise of a long-cherished, local tradition.

"The traditional lanterns are threatened by Chinese lanterns," says journalist Ahmed el-Dereiny who has studied the history.

"Ramadan in Egypt has a different spirit in terms of meals, festivities, prayers and so on. Lanterns are part of the festivities. They are a purely Egyptian Ramadan tradition."

The exact origin of the lantern as a Ramadan symbol is not clear.

Some trace it to the early Fatimid Caliph, Al Muaz Liddinallah, who is said to have been greeted by people carrying lanterns when he became ruler.

They were used to light mosques and outside terraces as guidance for night prayers in Ramadan from about this time.

Others say the custom began because children carried the candle-lit lanterns in front of women when they went out in the evening during Ramadan.

Many traditional children's songs refer to lanterns.

Overseas buyers

Back in the alley, the al-Sunnis admit that Chinese imports have damaged trade in recent years, but believe their lanterns will stand the test of time.

"The Chinese product lasts for a short while but it's expensive. If you have two children you could pay 100 Egyptian pounds ($17; £11), but they will only work for as long as two batteries," the older Mr al-Sunni says.

His son says that their hand-made lamps could themselves benefit from international trade.

"The Chinese thought they could compete with the local Egyptian lanterns but it hasn't worked," he says.

"Arab nations, Europeans and Muslim communities all over the world are now importing from us."

Egyptian women walk past paper lanterns used as decorations during Ramadan, on a street in downtown Cairo, Egypt on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

The video below was a particularly enchanting find, and in 2 minutes gives a highly aesthetic visual overview of the different types of lanterns and lights to be found in Cairo, set to music.

From: Video Blog Review of رمضان هذه السنة [Ramadan This Year]
by Qusay, Executive Editor, Divan

Are Ramadan Lanterns part of Ramadan activities in your country?
Are other forms of lights, as decorations or sparklers?
Of the lanterns pictured here do you have a preference?
Traditional or contemporary?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

A Palestinian Muslim woman stands at the entrance of her house holding a traditional Ramadan lantern while celebrating the announcing of the holy month of Ramadan, in an alley of Jerusalem's old city, Tuesday, Aug. 10 2010. Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, will begin Wednesday. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

4 comments:

Wafa' said...

Fawanis are very beautiful and gives a special touch to the holy month. Unfortunately, they are not a traditions in most of Saudi Arabia.

And i think that lanterns can be way useful to the environment than electricity. Plus, their light is more Romantic, lol, i know i have drifted from the topic.

Light is a bliss.

Thanks for sharing Chiara :)

Susanne said...

Ugh, I hope their lovely traditional lanterns and decorations don't get overtaken by junk made in China. I'm sure some of it's fine, but not all. :)

What a colorful post. I like that the little girl in the first picture has a green face! Cute! :)

Qusay said...

Susanne, they are all made in China now...

Nice post, fawanis are mostly an Egyptian thing, and very few other regions have adopted that.

Chiara said...

Wafa'--thank you for your comment and I agree, especially that "Light is bliss". Hopefully the tradition will spread.

Susanne--thanks for your comment, and I'm glad you liked the pics--green face and purple clothes and glow! I once had an outfit that was all green and purple including stockings and shoes! Very stylish--especially since, if there was any purple or green on my face, it was eye shadow only! :D

Qusay--thanks for your comment, and I am glad you liked the post. It seems they have spread from Egypt as far as Palestine and Lebanon, perhaps with Egyptians originally. All made in China! :( :( :( ;)

Thanks again to all for their comments! I am a new Ramadan lantern aficionado! Must find the Egyptian quarter of town, next Ramadan! :)

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