"Fanous Ramadan" A Folk Heritage for Over a Thousand Years

Adapted by Egyptians, the Idea was Exported to the Rest of Arab Countries

Lanterns, Fanous, are lit to invite buyers in a shop in Khan El-Khalili (Photo by Halim El-Shaarani).
Lanterns, Fanous, are lit to invite buyers in a shop in Khan El-Khalili (Photo by Halim El-Shaarani).

"Fanous Ramadan" A Folk Heritage for Over a Thousand Years

As soon as the breezes of the holy month of Ramadan arrive, the streets take off their usual cloak to wear a new dress in bright colors, where you can see the lanterns lined up on both sides with their beautiful lighting and different colors.

The blessed month of Ramadan in the Arab countries has been associated with Ramadan decorations that fill the streets and with the lanterns adorning buildings and homes which are associated in particular with the Egyptians. The lantern represents one of the rituals established in Egyptian society to annually celebrate the advent of the holy month.

Fanous Ramadan - Arabic for lantern - is a special symbol of the month of Ramadan, especially in Egypt. This tradition has been passed down from generation to generation. Children now carry Fanous Ramadan and go out to the streets singing, while many people are hanging large, colorful lanterns in the streets, in front of houses, apartments, and balconies.



The word “Fanous” originates from the Greek word “φανός”- pronounced almost identically - which means lantern, or a means of illumination, be it portable or fixed.



There are many stories and tales that are circulated on the origin of this word, and the era in which the Fanous first appeared, as well as how it was used. But despite the differences of these stories, they all agree that the Egyptians were the first to know the Fanous and spread it to all Arab countries. One story goes that it was used on the day when Al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah entered the city of Cairo from the west, which was the fifth day of Ramadan in the year 358 AH. Egyptians went out in a very large procession in which men, women and children participated on the outskirts of the Western Desert from Giza to welcome the Fatimid Caliph Al-Mu'izz who arrived at night. They were holding torches as well as colorful and decorated lanterns in order to light the way to him.  Thus, the Fanous - Arabic for lantern - remained illuminating the streets until the end of the month of Ramadan, becoming a custom that people followed every year, and Fanous became a symbol of joy and a beloved tradition in the month of Ramadan.

There is another story about how one of the Fatimid caliphs wanted to light the streets of Cairo throughout the nights of Ramadan, so he ordered all the sheikhs of mosques to hang lanterns that are lit by candles placed inside them.

A third story relates that during the Fatimid era, women were not allowed to leave their homes except in the month of Ramadan, and when they walked on the street they were preceded by a boy carrying a lantern to alert the men that there was a woman on the way and to keep away from them. The women enjoyed going out and at the same time the men did not look at them. After women were free to go out at any time, people continued to adhere to the tradition of the lantern, when children carry lanterns, walk in the streets and sing.


A vendor hangs Ramadan lanterns (or Fanous Ramadan) that are displayed for sale at a shop ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in Cairo. Credit: Mohamed AbdelGhany/Reuters.



Fanous manufacture is not a seasonal industry. Production continues throughout the year, as its makers excel in inventing different shapes and models, and store them to be gleefully put up for sale in Ramadan, which is the boom season for this industry. The Egyptian city of Cairo is one of the most important Islamic cities in which this industry thrives.

Slowly, the Egyptian Fanous started to trickle into neighboring countries until it became a Ramadan tradition in many of them, especially in Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Gaza and others.

In the city of Jerusalem, for example, the Old City market and the Bab Al-Wad road are especially designated for the iron lanterns with hand-painted and decorative stained glass, where they are sold during the month of Ramadan. Despite their expensive prices, they are very popular and families are keen to buy them.

Cairo is one of the most important Islamic cities in which this industry thrives, and there are certain sections, such as El-Darb El-Ahmar near the Al-Azhar district, Al-Ghouriya, and Birkat Al-Fil area in Sayeda Zeinab, which are among the most important areas specializing in the manufacture of Fanous.  In these areas you will find the most famous workshops and the most famous families who inherited this craft.



Many types of lanterns have been created throughout history but its beginning was with the fabrication of the “Parliament” lantern which got its  name because its design resembles the Parliament Hall. It is the oldest type of lantern and it also became popular in the thirties in relation to one of the lanterns hanging in one of the halls of the Egyptian Parliament at that time.

As for the “Farouk” lantern, this had a completely different design and was named after King Farouk who ordered his servants to manufacture the lantern to decorate the royal palace during one of his birthday celebrations. There are many names that have been associated with the lantern throughout history, such as “Abu Hashwa” or “Abu Sharaf,” “Abu al-Wlad” and others.

The origin of these tales is that the craftsmen who were designing these lanterns were keen to write their names on them so they would become famous for a long period of time, but their names disappeared and only the term “Fanous” lasted.

Majalla toured popular neighborhoods of the coastal city of Alexandria to monitor the manifestations of Ramadan preparations, where children and young people who have mastered the manufacture of lanterns are keen to restore their glory, and invent new ideas for lanterns, in an attempt to preserve this traditional handicraft.


Ramadan lanterns (fanous) on display at a shop in Manshia district, Alexandria. (Photo by Sarah Gamal)


Ahmed El-Sayed, one of the makers of Ramadan lanterns in Alexandria, says that he started work about six months ago and manufactures “Khayamiya” lanterns using iron and fabric special for Ramadan.  He creates many different shapes, including Aladdin’s lantern, bean carts, Knafeh, crescent and cannon, and other different shapes and sizes.

El-Sayed explained the stages of manufacturing lanterns, saying: “The first stage begins with sending certain shapes to the blacksmithing workshop to design the internal structure of the lantern using iron wire and welding it. After that, we cut a cloth to wrap the structure and cover the iron shapes that were chosen in the beginning, followed by the stage of closing the lantern with Khayamiya cloth and also finishing the lantern, which is the last stage of manufacturing after which the product is sent to shops for sale.”

Regarding the shapes of Ramadan lanterns, the manufacturer Hanafi Ibrahim says; "The manufacture of the Knafeh cart in Khayamiya is done by designing the iron wire in the form of a circle, and a small electric motor is placed inside a wire to run the cart. Then Khayamiya cloth is attached, a tray is installed from the top, the lamp is placed and lit in order to be a small model for making Knafeh."

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