Egypt's Ramadan lantern-makers struggle to adapt to changing industry

Rising copper prices put some of Cairo's lantern artisans out of business while others have changed their designs to fit modern tastes

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Amid the age-worn buildings of Old Cairo, home to some of the world's most prominent Islamic relics, craftsmen in their workshops tinker away with a variety of materials to make traditional Ramadan lanterns that many now struggle to sell.

Veterans of this small industry that was once booming, driven by tourists visiting the Egyptian capital's historic quarter and leaving with armfuls of souvenirs, suggest that it is now facing its potential end.

Some say they will not be passing it on to their children.

“This craft dates back centuries — mine is the fourth generation to do it,” says Ahmed Mattar, 65, a copper artisan. “But the way things are going, I don’t think I will be passing on this trade to anyone.”

Mr Mattar’s great-grandfather designed and crafted the copper light fixtures that hung down from the ceiling of Cairo’s famous Al Azhar Mosque in the late 19th century. His father and uncles made an entire network of copper fixtures surrounding Al Hussein Mosque, another landmark in the area also know as Islamic Cairo.

Copper artisan Ahmed Mattar, 65, owns and runs a small workshop in Islamic Cairo, which specialises in creating Ramadan lanterns. Mahmoud Nasr / The National

He says it is nothing short of heartbreaking to think that his family’s craft enjoyed such prominence when today, his shop barely breaks even every month.

“The largest obstacle I face in my line of work is the price of raw copper, which has multiplied by over 10 times in the last 10 years,” he says. “It has severely limited my operational capacity.”

In 2012, Mr Mattar bought a kilogram of raw copper for 28 Egyptian pounds; today, it costs him around 320 pounds ($17.50).

He says he can only afford to make a few lanterns at a time before he runs out of copper and has to buy more, by which time his funds are depleted from paying his three assistants their wages.

Copper workshops in Islamic Cairo are particularly busy during Ramadan because their most important item is the traditional lantern or fanous, one of the most important symbols of the holy month. Mahmoud Nasr / The National

The big problem, says Mr Mattar, is that Egypt has to import most of its copper.

“Throughout my career, I have bought raw copper that was imported from Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia and Spain,” he says. “There was, at times, copper that was produced in Egypt, at a factory in Alexandria, and it was actually good to work with, but the production was never consistent and it’s now over.”

Egypt’s total imports in 2020 were double the value of its exports, and comprised mainly wheat, petroleum and cars.

“In a country like Egypt, where there are so many poor people, the government has to think about its priorities when it comes to imports,” explains Mr Mattar. “Copper is simply not an essential good when you have to import so much wheat to be able to feed over 100 million people. It is a luxury in the end, so the government is not taking steps to mitigate its price.”

Mr Mattar says his business is also affected by changing tastes in lantern designs.

The lanterns are made from scratch in the workshop owned by Ahmed Mattar, whose family has been in the copper-making business for four generations. Mahmoud Nasr / The National

His copper lanterns, which are made in the old-fashioned Fatimid style with stained-glass inlays, are more expensive than the mass-manufactured models that have entered the market over the past couple of decades. His lanterns cost about 400 pounds, compared to about 10 pounds plastic lanterns.

These newer models, mostly imported from China for Ramadan each year, are fitted with twinkling lights and small speakers that play traditional Ramadan songs.

These additions make them very popular with children, who do not value the subtle and precise craftsmanship that goes into the likes of Mr Mattar’s lanterns.

Traditional Ramadan lanterns called fanous are displayed for sale at stalls in the Egyptian capital. Reuters

While many of his fellow artisans have made the switch to using sheet iron, which is much cheaper than copper, Mr Mattar refuses to follow suit. He says purists like himself would never compromise their traditional craftsmanship by using a sub-par metal.

“Copper is eternal. You can leave it for years and it will always have this classiness to it. I would sooner close down my shop than use sheet iron to make these lanterns,” he says.

However, many of Islamic Cairo’s other lantern artisans have changed their process to cut costs and adapt to younger tastes, says lantern seller Sanaa Mohamed, 57.

An Egyptian woman checks traditional Ramadan lantern called "fanous" at a shop stall ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cairo, Egypt, April 12, 2020. Picture taken April 12, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

“Times are always changing, and people have to change with them,” she says.

“I have the utmost respect for experienced old-timers who hold on to their ancestral traditions and I always make sure I stock a couple of the expensive models they make in my store. But the harsh truth is that people like that always get left behind. There are a lot of artisans around here who have ventured into making plastic lanterns with pictures of celebrities on them and sheet-iron lanterns inlaid with electric lights. And those are always the ones that sell best in my store. People always want the new thing and a successful businessman has to adapt to that.”

She says that after a state ban on Chinese lantern imports in 2015, Egyptian artisans started to get creative with their models, which greatly invigorated the artistic element of the industry.

However, importers in Egypt continue to bring in Chinese models into the market through various channels, says Ms Mohamed.

“Just head down to the Alley of the Jews and you’ll find heaps of Chinese lanterns that sellers like me buy wholesale,” she says, referring to a neighbourhood in Cairo that was once a centre of the Jewish community.

Updated: April 05, 2022, 10:39 AM
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