The traditional Ramadan lantern, or fanous, has begun to adorn the Egyptian capital of Cairo, showing up on hoardings, shop windows and in most of the country’s Muslim households.
Although its origins can be traced back to ancient Egypt — when it was used during annual festivals to celebrate the birth of prominent deities in the pharaonic pantheon such as Osiris, Horus, Isis, Seth and Nephthys — the fanous is a common sight in most Muslim-majority countries around the world today.
Its use in decorating homes and public spaces in celebration of Ramadan dates back to the Fatimid conquest of Egypt, when Al Muizz Lideenillah, after whom one of the most famous streets in Islamic Cairo was named, arrived in Egypt during Ramadan and was supposedly greeted by natives holding up lanterns.
Egyptians reportedly lit the lanterns the whole month to welcome Lideenillah, who was quite taken with the sight and established it as a tradition to be observed each year.
However, historians agree that there is probably more to this story than meets the eye since the Fatimids were Shiite conquerors taking over Sunni territory at the time.
Originally containing a candle or oil and a wick, the design of the Islamic lanterns was updated from the version dating back to ancient Egypt.
While the traditional design is most popular with most buyers today, designs have been given a modern touch over the past few decades to include lanterns made in the shape of pop culture figures and cartoon characters enjoyed by children.
Others are decorated with pictures of prominent football players and actors. One of the most common faces pasted on lanterns nowadays is that of football star Mohamed Salah.
These modern lanterns often come with twinkling lights and speakers that play traditional Ramadan songs.
Modern lanterns are pretty cheap, unlike the more elaborate, higher-end traditional designs typically made from brass inlaid with coloured glass and produced by professional artisans in the country's Islamic districts.
Fanous-making remains one of the most prolific handicrafts practised by Egypt’s artisans, many of whom inherited the tradition from their fathers and grandfathers.
“I made these ones myself,” Mohamed Mohamed, 31, tells The National as he points to lanterns at his family’s shop in Islamic Cairo.
“We have a workshop not far from here where we make all of our lanterns. My brothers and I do most of the work but our father oversees our work.”
According to Mamluk-era Islamic historian Taqi Al Maqrizi, the lanterns were a very common part of celebrations in Egypt, even one for other religions.
He says they were even used in Christmas celebrations across the country before it was conquered by the Shiite Fatimids who made Cairo the capital of their short-lived empire.
Today, the period before Ramadan is the busiest for the capital’s brass workers, one during which they look forward to making their largest sales for the year.
During the holy month, Cairo's historically Islamic districts stay open for visitors well past midnight each day, with shops and vendors selling Ramadan-themed goods while musicians play folk music in cafes and people enjoy snacks and treats.
While the lantern itself is not religious in the sense that it is not mentioned in Islamic scriptures, it has become an important part of Ramadan celebrations.
“It is unclear to me what Islamic law thinks of the fanous. But I think that it has an important part to play in celebrations of Ramadan in Egypt,” says Sonia Fahmy, a Quran instructor and philanthropist.
“It is not religious in and of itself; rather, it is a decorative element that keeps the religious traditions alive through the celebrations it is used in.”
The country’s institutions, including most ministries, universities and government authorities, are known to adorn their premises with large, extravagant lanterns during the holy month.
Although the roots of the fanous are in Egypt, it has spread to other Muslim-majority regions around the world since the Middle Ages, particularly countries in Asia such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Other Arab nations such as Jordan, Lebanon and the UAE do incorporate fanous decorations into their Ramadan celebrations, though not to the same extent as Egypt.