Ramadan Lantern…Historic Symbol that Lights Up Nights of Holy Month

Lanterns Vary Between Popular Customs, Economic Competition
People shop from a stall selling Ramadan lanterns along a main street in the in the northern suburb of Shubra of Egypt's capital Cairo on April 12, 2021, at the start of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. (Getty)

The holy month of Ramadan has started, bringing with it breezes of faith and joyful nights. Each year people celebrate this month by decorating the streets, hanging lanterns and singing Ramadan songs, all of which have become part of the history, culture and folklore.

There are many stories about the origin of the lantern which is associated with the holy month. The most famous one states that the Fatimid Caliph used to go out on the night before Ramadan along with children, each of them carrying a lantern to light the way as they sang in celebration for the holy month.

According to Egyptian archeologist Dr. Abdel-Rahim Rayhan, the lantern has been associated with Egyptians since the 15th of Ramadan in the year 368 AH (972 AD) when the Caliph of the Fatimid Dynasty al-Muizz li-Dinillah entered Cairo, which he later made the capital of his state. Back then, Egyptians came out to greet the Caliph at the Giza desert carrying torches and lanterns and chanting greetings, most notably “Wahawi ya wahawi, Iyyahah.” The word “Iyyahah” is related to the moon in Ancient Egyptian, and the phrase became a special greeting to Ramadan’s crescent.

The song is Pharaonic in origin and its original text is “Qah Wi Wah Wi Aha,” which means “you have emerged, oh moon, you have emerged.” It also bears another welcome meaning “how beautiful is your appearance, moon,” as the moon was called “Aha” by the Pharaohs, according to the Professor of Archeology and Islamic Arts at the Faculty of Archeology at Cairo University, Dr. Ali Ahmed al-Tayish.

Tayish confirmed that after the Fatimids entered Egypt and the phenomenon of lanterns spread throughout the country, the song became associated with Ramadan only, although it was later linked to all lunar nights.

Ramadan’s Lantern for Entertainment

During the era of the Fatimid state, the lantern shifted from a night-lighting source for the streets in Ramadan to an entertainment device. Back then, the Fatimid Caliph ordered the imams of mosques to hang lanterns in the streets at night during the holy month. However, nowadays children roam the streets at night, asking for gifts and sweets such as kunafa, qatayef, and Eid cakes.

According to Dr. Rayhan, women during that era were forbidden from going out at night except during Ramadan to travel to mosques, provided that a young boy carried a lit lantern in his hand so that passers-by would know that there are women and to clear the way for them. It is also said that the origin of the lantern was associated with the presence of the mesaharati, who roamed the streets before dawn with young boys carrying lanterns, calling on people to wake up for the suhoor meal (last evening meal before fasting).

Lantern Manufacturing Workshops

The manufacturing of tinplate lanterns began in small workshops in several areas in Cairo, the most famous of which was the branching quarter of Bab al-Khalq Square, followed by other places in several governorates such as Beheira and Faiyum. The use of lanterns later began to be implemented in other cities in the region, especially Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and most Arab countries, becoming a ritual in the holy month. Lanterns were also created from tin and glass, in which craftsmen excelled in their manufacturing process by adding stained glass and forming them in multiple shapes.

As the use of plastic developed over time, China became the largest exporter of lanterns after incorporating into them Ramadan-related audios and songs. China also created lanterns in the form of dolls of famous figures, such as a lantern of Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian professional football player in England, Bogy and Tamtam and other figures.

This year, lanterns created in the form of a Ramadan cannon and an illuminated T-shirt were sold in all of the country’s markets and have become very popular. However, the old traditional lantern topped the sales after the government issued Decisions No. 9, 34 and 92 that banned the import of lanterns and children’s toys except to foreign factories registered in Egypt.

Lantern manufacturing is an active industry throughout the year despite its close association with Ramadan. Lantern factories are spread over Cairo, which has the most famous lantern-making workshops, including the over 50-year old Umm Ibrahim workshop in Al-Sayyida Zaynab, which is located in the Wardani neighborhood near the famous fish market. Dozens of people work in this workshop, where the number of orders sees a hike several months before Ramadan.

Lantern-making workshops are also spread in the Bab al-Luq area, and the centers and cities of the Beheira governorate, the most famous of which is Uncle Abdo’s workshop in al-Mahmoudiya, where various shapes of lantern are created, including a triangle, ball, cup and a jewel.

The small lantern takes about two hours to make, while the large lantern, which contains four small lanterns, takes about 10 hours. There are also workshops in the old Saifiyah area, which is one of the popular neighborhoods in Faiyum city. The most famous of the workshops there is Ahmed Founia’s workshop, which was founded 60 years ago. Wooden lantern workshops also opened in Damietta governorate, the most famous of which is the Mohammed al-Kafrawi workshop.

Lantern Import Bill

Reports about the worth of Egypt’s import bill for Ramadan lanterns varied this year. According to Ahmed Abu Gabal, head of the school supplies and children’s toys division at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, the import bill for Ramadan lanterns amounted to about $10 million. Importers in the Federation of Chambers of Commerce, for their part, affirmed that Egypt imported lanterns from China with a cost exceeding $30 million despite the high shipping rates. This led merchants to raise the prices by 30 percent compared to 2020.

However, official data released by the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce indicated that all the lanterns offered for sale in Egyptian markets in Ramadan 2020 were 100 percent homemade, ruling out imported lanterns. More than four million lanterns were locally manufactured during the pandemic, said Barakat Safa, head of the stationary division at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce.

Ahmed Shiha, head of the Importers’ Division in the Cairo Chamber, affirmed that the availability of Ramadan lanterns was not affected by the low imports from China. This year’s Chinese lantern is different in shape and design compared to last year, he said, which made it the best seller despite its high prices that ranged between EGP100 and 400, depending on the material.

Recovery of Homemade Egyptian Lanterns

The import ban decision has contributed to the recovery of the Egyptian lantern industry and its popularity, especially in the Al-Sayyida Zaynab market in Cairo, the Mansheya market in Alexandria, and the wooden lantern market in Damietta. The prices of the homemade lanterns were lower than those imported from China.

Despite the flexibility in the lanterns’ wholesale prices, which ranged between EGP10 to 200, the demand is considered moderate, Ahmed Tharwat, the lantern vender in the wholesale market in France Street in Mansheya, Alexandria, told Majalla. He attributed this moderate turnout to the repercussions of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. This prompted him to replace selling traditional lanterns with “Wahawi ya wahawi, Iyyahah” T-shirts with a luminous lantern image, which are cheaper in price, and small lantern medals, with prices ranging between EGP3 and 10 pounds, and the finest ones selling for EGP25, depending on the size and material.

The owner of a workshop that manufactures wooden lanterns in the al-Shuaraa area in Damiettan Munjid Amer told Majalla that the decision gave local workshops the opportunity to innovate.

Amer noted that this year was the first time he used the art of creating furniture for manufacturing wooden lanterns in varying forms by using laser engraving machines, which led to their extensive distribution in the markets.

However, he affirmed that the metal lantern did not lose its popularity despite its relatively high price.

Manufacturing wooden lanterns also contributed to revitalizing wood and furniture factories and reducing unemployment rates, he said.

Amer further pointed out that those who buy the tin lanterns are among the people interested in preserving antiques and traditional pieces, particularly the elderly, shop owners and large commercial chains.

“For them, the lantern represents a significant anniversary,” he concluded.