“At the beginning of Ramadan, mosques are illuminated within, and lamps are hung at their entrances. In the morning, many of the shops are shut but in the afternoon the streets are as much crowded as usual, and all the shops are open. It is common in this month to see the tradesmen in their shops reciting the Quran or prayers, or distributing bread to the poor.”
This quotation from the 19th-century British writer Edward William Lane’s famous book Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians documents Ramadan festivities in Egypt during the reign of Mohamed Ali Pasha in the early 19th century. But the same picture could be produced of more modern times. The customs have not changed in Egypt, even if there are differences from one governorate to another.
Many traditions practised during Ramadan from the Islamic conquest until the early 20th century remain alive, even if others have died out or changed over the years. These traditions first appeared in Egypt before spreading all over the Arab world and becoming an integral part of the celebration of Ramadan in Upper Egypt, the Nile Valley, and on the Mediterranean shores.
“The phenomenon of celebrating Ramadan in Egypt has always attracted the interest of Egyptians and foreigners,” notes Salama Zahran, head of Islamic Monuments in the Upper Egyptian town of Al-Bahnassa at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
“Many great writers and thinkers have observed the joyous Egyptian celebrations, customs, and traditions over the course of two centuries that marked the holy month. Just a few names include the British orientalist Edward William Lane (1801-1876), the Egyptian historian Ahmed Amin (1886-1954) and the Egyptian writer Neamat Ahmed Fouad (1924-2016), among others. These customs have not changed since ancient times but rather have become more entrenched with time.”
Some of the Ramadan celebrations that Lane depicted in the mid-19th century are similar to those today. He describes Egyptian houses and meals during Ramadan, for example. “The master of the house receives his guests a few minutes before sunset,” he says. “A tray is placed on the table with several dishes of dried fruits such as hazelnuts, raisins, shelled walnuts, dried dates, dried figs, shelled almonds, sugared nuts, and kahk. In addition, several glass cups of sherbet of sugar and water are placed.”
His book includes vivid descriptions of the daily rituals of people fasting, highlighting the crowds at mosques as worshippers performed the taraweeh prayers.
In the same vein, another book, the “Dictionary of Egyptian Customs, Traditions, and Expressions” by Ahmed Amin, an Egyptian historian, depicts celebrations of Ramadan in the first half of the 20th century that are strikingly similar to current celebrations.
“If you spend Ramadan in Egypt, you will see how Egyptians prepare for Ramadan by giving charity to the poor, staying up for Sohour, doing supplications, and paying zakat before the Eid, with cannons announcing the beginning of Iftar,” Amin wrote.
“Muslims generally break their fast at home. After that, they sometimes spend an hour or two in the house of a friend. Numerous pedestrians are seen in the streets during the greater part of the night, and most of the shops at which traditional drinks and food are sold remain open. The night is thus turned into day, particularly by the wealthy, most of whom sleep during a great part of the day.”
Amin says that many people would organise free Iftar meals to break the fast and distribute them to the poor. “Groups of volunteers stop pedestrians and vehicles passing through to distribute meals and invite travelers to break their fast. In the villages of Upper Egypt, young men go out on the highways and sit on the sidewalks before Iftar inviting passers-by to join them.”
“With Iftars being regularly held in different regions, Egypt has always been known as a country where no one remains without an Iftar,” Amin wrote.
THE RAMADAN CRESCENT
During the mediaeval Fatimid Caliphate, Egypt adopted many traditions from elsewhere that influenced the customs and traditions of its own society. Since the 11th century, the sighting of the crescent moon has been one of the most beautiful religious moments.
“The Fatimid Caliph Al-Mustansir bi-Allah built a mosque at the foot of the Mukattam Hills. Its minaret was an observatory for sighting the crescent moon in Ramadan. During the reign of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the ceremonial procession for sighting the Ramadan crescent was an official tradition, as the caliph and his ministers went out on horseback passing through the streets from Gammaliya and Bab Al-Fotouh and then returning from Bab Al-Nasr to Gammaliya,” ministry official Zahran said.
“During the tour, they distributed gifts and charity to the poor, and then began to write to the governors and deputies to announce the coming of the holy month. All social classes, whether wealthy merchants or artisans, used to take part in these processions.”
During the later Mameluke era, the caliphs were also keen to celebrate the crescent sighting. Five Islamic judges would go out to sight the crescent moon, holding lanterns and candles, while merchants and the leaders of different professions would gather by the Al-Mansour School. When the sighting was confirmed, the judges would announce the start of fasting and convey the message to the people. This tradition lasted until the Ottoman era.
In the 19th century, Lane also depicted this event as it existed in his time. “On this night, the entourage and the sheikhs of the craftsmen, including millers, bakers, butchers, knights, food sellers, bands of musicians and the public, march in the direction of the castle [Citadel] where the judges confirm the sighting of the new moon, then great celebrations begin. They march in the streets and fire cannons,” he wrote.
At the beginning of the 20th century during the reign of the Sultan Abbas Helmi, the celebration moved to Bab Al-Khalk and began with music and cannon fire from the citadel lighting up the Cairo skies.
When the Ramadan crescent is sighted, the city puts on a new gown of colourful decorations to mark the beginning of Ramadan. Every street, lane, neighbourhood, whether rich or poor, turns out for beautiful celebrations.
This was a form of popular heritage for all classes and sects in Egypt. Once Ramadan began, children and the elderly would hurry to adorn the streets and their homes with ornaments, expressing their readiness for Ramadan.
These ornaments date back to the Fatimid era and were used for religious ceremonies called al-wakoud nights, in other words the religious nights of the first night of Ramadan and the nights taking place in the Islamic months of Rajab and Shaaban. Mosques were lit with lanterns, food, sweets, and incense were distributed, and a few days before Ramadan started the official responsible for Cairo’s streets ordered all shop owners to clean the streets in front of their premises every night after sunset prayer.
They would put lamps and lanterns in front of their shops, and the people of Cairo would leave their homes after fast-breaking to listen to the religious chanters inside the Ramadan tents that had been set up in the streets.
For over 1,000 years, the Ramadan lantern, or fanous, has been a main traditional decoration for Ramadan in Egypt. According to tradition, people came out carrying fanous to greet the Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz li-Din Allah on the fifth day of Ramadan in 358 AH (970 CE). The lantern industry started in Egypt during the Fatimid era, with craftsmen manufacturing them throughout the year until the month of Ramadan came.
According to the Arab historian Al-Maqrizi, “the caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah gathered 500 craftsmen in Fatimid Cairo neighbourhoods before the month began to make the lanterns.” He also ordered the locals to place the lanterns in every alley and in front of every house.
The lamps have undergone many transformations over the years, but their essence has remained the same. As a symbol of Ramadan in Egypt, the use of lanterns has been passed down from generation to generation, and even today children carry lanterns while chanting the songs of Ramadan.
Ramadan tables, or maedat al-rahman (tables of mercy), in the city streets are also a centuries-old ritual in Ramadan. Meals are prepared by restaurants and families during the day, and at sunset the tables are laid and food is offered to the needy and passers-by.
Inspired by the Surat Al-Maeda in the Quran calling for the spreading of mercy amongst Muslims, these tables appeared in the time of the Prophet Mohamed. The tradition started with a group from Al-Taif in the Hijaz area of what is now Saudi Arabia who arrived when the prophet was in Medina and announced their conversion to Islam. The prophet then sent them Iftar and Sohour meals. Following this tradition, the early caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab established the Dar Al-Deyafa (the house of guests) to provide Iftar meals for those fasting during Ramadan.
The first Ramadan tables in Egypt appeared in the era of the Abbasid governor Ahmed ibn Toloun in 880 CE. He prepared a feast to which he invited merchants and dignitaries on the first day of Ramadan, and then he ordered them to open their homes to feed the poor. The tradition is believed to date back to the rule of the Abbasid caliph Haroun Al-Rashid in Baghdad, who set up the tables in his palace.
Over time, the tradition disappeared, but then returned during the rule of the Fatimid caliph Al-Muizz li-Din Allah, who prepared a feast for people praying in the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque in Cairo. The food was cooked in his palace and then distributed to the poor.
Until the present, the tables have remained a tradition related to Ramadan in the streets of Egypt, with the well-off preparing tables every year for the poor to find various kinds of food. In the 20th century, the tradition was transferred to the Nasser Social Bank, which prepared tables near the Al-Azhar Mosque in Historic Cairo to feed 4,000 people. The first Coptic tables were set up in the Shubra neighbourhood in 1969.
Some of the best places to experience this tradition today are located in Al-Azhar, Khan Al-Khalili, Al-Hussein, Al-Sayeda Zeinab, and Ramses Square in Cairo.
Many Muslim countries announce the breaking of the fast during the holy month by firing cannons at sunset, but Cairo was the first city to adopt this tradition.
Legend has it that in 865 AH (1460 CE), the then Mameluke sultan wanted to test a new cannon. When the cannon was fired at the exact time of sunset during Ramadan, people believed that it had been deliberately fired to indicate that it was time to break the fast. The crowds went to thank the sultan, who decided to continue the firing of the cannon at Iftar and Sohour in Ramadan. Many records also document the firing from the citadel and the Muqattam Hills.
Other historians argue that during the reign of the khedive Ismail in the 1870s while soldiers were cleaning a cannon a cannon ball was accidentally fired around sunset in Ramadan. When the public embraced this as a new Ramadan ritual to remind them of sunset prayers and breaking their fast, Hajja Fatemah, the khedive’s daughter, decided to make it a habit. Since that day, the Ramadan cannon has been heard in Cairo every day of Ramadan seconds before sunset.
Also related to the sounds of Ramadan are the mesaharaty, men who roam the streets of towns and cities calling out to wake people up and remind them to eat the Sohour meal before dawn. The mesaharaty first appeared in Cairo during the Abbasid Caliphate, and Otbat bin Ishaq, the then Abbasid governor of Egypt, was the first known mesaharaty. He walked through the streets of the city from Fustat to the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-Aas calling on people to awake.
In villages today, the mesaharaty stops in front of each house and calls the inhabitants by their names in order to wake them up for Sohour.
A distinct tradition in Egypt during Ramadan is the aragouz; a form of traditional hand puppetry where performers remain hidden behind a portable stage during the performance. Such shows were associated with religious holidays, particularly Ramadan and the Moulid Al-Nabawi (The prophet’s birthday).
According to the UN cultural agency UNESCO, “the art was presented by travelling groups of performers, who moved from one folk festival to another between the 15th and 17th centuries. However, when these performances began to dwindle, performers settled permanently in Cairo.”
“The Aragoz [puppeteer] himself is usually short, dressed in red clothes and wearing a pointed red hat called a tartour, and holding his famous wooden stick. He expresses himself with a copper whistle called an amana and has entertained both children and adults for almost a century. The Aragoz traditionally appears from behind a curtain showing the spectators his daily encounters with his wife, friends, and porter, with a recurring theme being the fight against corruption,” commented Hanaa Fathi, a 70-year-old doctor in Cairo, describing the Aragoz as smart and with a high level of social intelligence.
The staging was a simple booth. However, some puppeteers used a mule-drawn caravan, where there were seats for the audience and a space for the performance. This tradition has been threatened for some years, and UNESCO has included it on its list of Egypt’s intangible cultural heritage. But even today in some areas in Cairo, Alexandria, and Upper Egypt, the Aragoz can still be seen setting up his stage and using his whistle to attract children.
FOOD AND DESSERTS
For many centuries, Muslims have enjoyed special traditional desserts during the holy month of Ramadan, including kunafa and qatayef which are made of a mixture of flour, water, and milk.
Some historians say that the desserts were brought to Egypt from Syria during the Fatimid Caliphate when the caliph Muizz li-Din Allah came to Egypt in Ramadan and people welcomed him with them. Others say that they date back to the Umayyad Caliphate, when Levantine confectioners prepared the desserts for the caliph Muawiya after he complained of hunger during Ramadan.
Another traditional dessert is Om Ali, a pastry covered with warm milk and nuts. Historians say that this became widespread in Egypt during the Mameluke period. Legend has it that when the wife of the Sultan Ezzeddin Aybak managed to get rid of his second wife Shagaret Al-Durr, her rival, and put her own son Ali on the throne, she distributed this sweet that became known as Om Ali — “the mother of Ali.”
“Soups have long been a tradition in Ramadan, and the tradition may well have been begun by king Farouk in the wake of the economic crisis following World War II,” writes Ahmed Amin. “The king served plentiful meals in public squares for the people as a token of social solidarity. From the accounts we have, the royal Iftars attracted hundreds of people. The food served would be of the highest quality, and the menu was carefully selected by the king’s chef and then approved by the sovereign himself before being prepared in the royal kitchens. These royal Iftars were referred to by the press as “the People’s Restaurants.”
“Fuul [fava beans] is a must on every Iftar table in Ramadan,” Amin adds. “If it is eaten with great appetite throughout the year for breakfast or lunch or dinner, it is even more popular during Ramadan when it asserts its identity as the staple diet of the Egyptian people.”
* The writer is a freelance journalist.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly