For over 60 years, the sound of workers in Afifi’s workshop pounding sheets of metal to make Egypt’s traditional Ramadan lanterns has been a harbinger for nearby residents that the beginning of the holy month is imminent. Some 20 days before it starts, the clamour grows louder, and the lanterns begin to be hung up.
This year, the workshop is still operating, but at half capacity, Sobhi Afifi, the son of the workshop’s late founder, explains. “We still have our loyal customers who return year after year, even with the recent price crunch. People will not abandon their Ramadan lanterns, but due to the rise in prices, a customer may purchase one lantern rather than two. Therefore, we have only made half the number of lanterns that we made last year,” he said.
Magdi Afifi, his brother, adds that “we were four workers from the same family who depended on the sales of this workshop, but the lack of sales has forced the others to abandon the business. Now, only my brother and I remain. However, the workshop does not rely solely on lantern-making for revenue as we also repair tools and sell metal goods to supplement our income.”
A family with two children entered the workshop and asked if last year’s lanterns could be repaired. Sobhi asked if the metal had rusted, then told the man he could fix it. “The lantern can be repaired and the glass changed, but if the steel is rusted, it cannot be salvaged and must be discarded,” he said.
“Our customers are already burdened with the high cost of food, so we have decided to maintain last year’s prices for the Ramadan lanterns to encourage people to purchase them.
“It’s not just about affordability, as our customers buy the lanterns to maintain the tradition of having them. Many of our customers request the same shapes every year. Some people use them to decorate their homes, while others display them on balconies. Shop and coffee-shop owners also purchase lanterns to decorate their shops. Many Christians also buy lanterns from us as gifts for their Muslim acquaintances.
“Before Ramadan starts, we use any spare time we have to manufacture the lanterns. We begin by acquiring basic materials, such as glass from the Shubra Al-Kheima glass market and metal sheets from Bab Al-Sheariya. My brother and I then cut the metal sheets and glass panels together. Then we carve ornaments and install the coloured glass. We work all year round to produce the quantity we sell during Ramadan.”
While the lantern-makers spend all year preparing for Ramadan, Shehata Al-Deeb, a lantern-seller, takes a different approach. “I work as a lantern-seller and build a temporary Ramadan tent for the occasion. I set it up twice a year. The first time is to sell traditional sweets like sugar dolls and horses to celebrate the Moulid Al-Nabi [the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed]. The second time is to sell Ramadan lanterns. I rely on the earnings from these periods to support myself for the rest of the year,” he said.
“I offer my customers a diverse selection and save them the trouble of heading to other markets to buy them. I sell metal lanterns made by a workshop in Sayeda Zeinab and plastic and wooden lanterns from a wholesaler in Abbassiya.
“I also know my customers well. Large lanterns made of metal and glass are usually purchased by women as home décor. Similar plastic lanterns of the same size are available for those looking for lower prices. I also sell smaller lanterns, ranging from 10 to 20 cm in size, which people buy as gifts.”
“For children, I sell lanterns with cartoon characters on them that attract their attention.” He pointed to a pile of plastic lanterns designed in the shape of a traditional lantern but decorated with Batman graphics.
“Despite my eagerness to offer a diverse range of designs, I had to purchase fewer lanterns this year due to concerns over declining sales. I have also had to increase the prices of the lanterns I sell compared to last year in order to offset the profit margin taken by the wholesalers.
“A lantern sold for LE120 last year now sells for LE220,” Al-Deeb said.
MADE AT HOME: According to Samar Said, a housewife from Cairo, the prices of lanterns are too high this year, so she has decided to make them herself.
“Many videos on the Internet explain how to make a lantern using materials from fabric and thread stores. Metal lanterns are available that can be covered with khayamiya fabric and then lit up.
Dina Talaat, engineer “Although I bought several lanterns and Ramadan decorations for my home, my friend and her children came over, and we decided to make more lanterns ourselves to create a fun experience for the children to welcome Ramadan. We made some lanterns of beads and others from traditional khayamiya fabric and decorated them with small coloured bulbs. We had a great time making them, and my friend gave me two lanterns to decorate our Iftar table and two larger ones for the living room.”
Fatma Fathi, housewife, said that she prefers to purchase the lanterns. “I am keen on buying a new lantern every year, and I started buying lanterns for the children in their early years. To this day, I remember the first lantern my mother brought me,” she said. “It was made of metal and glass and had a small bird inside it.”
Amina Mahfouz, a translator, remembers a similar lantern from her childhood. “My mother used to bring me a lantern with a small glowing bird inside it, so I buy a lantern every year to maintain this tradition,” she said.
Rather than buy a new lantern every year, designer Yasmine Fahmi appreciates antique ones. “I was searching through some antique lanterns until luck led me to rediscover types that are no longer available on the market. I used these to make my own designs.”
Working on creating cultural documentation for the lanterns, Fahmi recorded the type, origin, and story of each by making a manufactured model.
“I love Islamic art in all its details, and the traditional designs of the lanterns reflect the features of Islamic architecture,” she said. “For example, the lanterns have a kind of dome on them, which is equivalent to the ones used on buildings in Islamic architecture.”
Some years ago, Fahmi came across a book called The Lanterns and Candles of the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Neighbourhood that documents 11 lantern models that have been passed down through the generations, including the Parliament, King’s Crown, Muqarnas, Farouk, Abu Loz, Tower, Barrel, Watermelon Slice, Shoibes, Afarkoush, and Tar Al-Alamah designs.
Fahmi realised that each type of lantern had a unique story to tell. One example is the Farouk lantern, which was custom-made to commemorate former king Farouk’s birthday. On the other hand, the King’s Crown design derives its name from a distinctive feature that resembles a crown. The other types are also named after their resemblance to various people or items present at their creation.
The book also mentions celebratory lanterns made for specific occasions, such as those designed in the shape of ships and warplanes during the 1940s. “Craftsmen made those lanterns to express their patriotism and support for the country,” Fahmi explains.
“I saw a lantern in the shape of a warship at the Geographical Society Museum next to the parliament in 2013,” she adds.
Fahmi later found a copy of a lantern made in the shape of a warplane. “Years later, by pure chance, I discovered a lantern shaped like a warplane on the website of one of the European museums. It was attributed to Egypt and was made in the 1940s. I contacted the museum and requested high-resolution photographs of the lantern from multiple angles. The museum sent these to me, and we reproduced the lantern in our workshop. It was one of the most challenging that we have ever made.”
Most of the lantern types mentioned in the book were still available. However, the Tar Al-Alamah lantern was no longer made, and Fahmi could only find its description in the book.
“The Tar Al-Aalamah lantern has two faces and six sides, and it resembles a musical instrument called the tar as used by oriental dancers,” it said. This description puzzled Fahmy, and she could not determine the lantern’s shape or replicate it until she was fortunate enough to receive another book with a picture that matched the description.
According to Fahmi, while reading Letters from Cairo by the English writer Sophia Lane Poole who spent time in Egypt in 1842, she found a page that included a picture of a workshop belonging to a lantern-maker. In the picture, there were many lanterns, and one design caught Fahmi’s attention, as it resembled the description of the Tar Al-Alamah lantern. Fahmi and her team carefully studied the lantern’s features in the picture until they were able to replicate it in their workshop.
On another page of the same book, Fahmi came across a picture of a lantern in an unconventional shape that resembled an old clock. After replicating the lantern, she was surprised to find that it has now become more popular than any of her other designs.
“It became the most popular of my designs, which amazed me for a while. Then it became clear to me that people could sense something familiar about its design, despite never having seen this particular lantern before. They were able to connect it with Eastern characteristics that are deeply rooted in our heritage. That’s why Egyptians are still drawn to the lanterns today.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly