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How did the Ramadan lantern tradition start?

Ramadan is related to customs that differ from those observed in other months, bringing joy to Egyptian homes and streets. Muslims look forward to the revival of these old practices since they became holy traditions. Among these are the Ramadan Lanterns, items that families use to decorate their homes, shops, and balconies during the month of Ramadan. Lantern is known in Arabic as Fanoos.

However, the question here is about the origins of these joyful object, which was once used uniquely for illumination, especially when visiting mosques late at night, but has evolved within Ramadan.

Egyptians are credited with being the first to invent the Ramadan Lantern, which dates back to the Fatimid state and has since spread across the world. In one story, the Fatimid caliph used to go out with his children the night before Ramadan; they sang in celebration of the holy month, each holding a lantern to light the way. In another story, one of the Fatimid caliphs ordered that mosques be lit with lanterns and candles throughout the month of Ramadan. Women were often seen carrying lanterns on their way, led by a young man so that passers-by will recognize them and indicate the right direction. 

In another context, the lanterns appearance is associated with the Mesaharaty, the person who walks the streets calling on sleepers to wake up and eat the suhoor (last evening meal before fasting). He was thought to be the one who started the tradition by holding a small lantern during his task. 

However, it is clear throughout history that the lantern industry began in Egypt during the Fatimid period, with a community of artisans producing and storing them for Ramadan. Al-Maqrizi wrote in one of his books that 500 craftsmen gathered in the Fatimid Cairo suburbs before the month to make lanterns.

The luxurious lanterns were made of copper, while the less expensive ones were made of tin and glass, with a wooden base to hold the candle, and hand inscriptions. Later came the development of glass, metal, and wood, followed by electric lanterns, which run on a battery and use a lamp instead of a torch. Some lanterns even play music.

Consequently, we cannot say that the lantern industry is seasonal; it goes on all year producing items of different shapes to be stored for sale during Ramadan.

Cairo is one of the most important Islamic towns, and the Al-Azhar, Al-Ghouriya, Bab Al-Sha’riya, and Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhoods are known for producing lanterns. It is worth a visit during the Holy Month. 

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