Ramadan Traditions: Thousand-Year-Old Legacies

Ramadan, the ninth lunar month when Muslims fast until sunset, is characterized by special spiritual rituals that will often trigger your emotions and make you feel nostalgic for simpler times. The holy month has a lot of beautiful traditions that developed over many centuries and are celebrated by all Egyptians; Muslims and Christians alike.

Cairo has a different flavor during this holy month. The whole city comes to life after sunset. Restaurants, cafes, hotels and shopping malls all are set up with lanterns and Ramadan-themed decorations, and Ramadan songs will ring in your ears for the entirety of the 30 days. And as evening approaches, a lot of people like to celebrate in places in old Cairo like Mu’ezz Eddin, El Hussein and Khan El Khalili.

But have you ever wondered where these traditions originated and how they evolved?

A lot of Ramadan traditions date back to the Fatimid era. We’ve compiled a list of the most popular three and their origins, so you can know more about those beautiful traditions we all love so much!

1- Ramadan Lanterns (Fanous Ramadan)

A unique, lovable symbol, Ramadan lanterns are to Ramadan what Christmas trees are to Christmas. Although an Arab symbol and tradition , the word ‘fanous’ originates from a similarly-pronounced Greek word with the same meaning.

Crafted from wood, plastic or even tin, Ramadan lanterns come in different sizes and colors, varying from big ones used for décor to little ones children use for playing with. They are believed to have originated in Egypt during the Fatimid Caliphate, when people greeted Caliph Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah with lanterns to celebrate his ruling. From that time, Cairo would be filled with lanterns used to light mosques and houses. Another story states that a Fatimid Caliph was accompanied by Egyptian children holding lanterns and singing Ramadan songs when he was on his way for the sighting of the crescent to mark the start of the holy month.

Another belief is that the tradition began because Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah forbade women from departing their homes, but offered an exception in Ramadan for praying and visiting relatives and neighbors -under the condition that the women be accompanied by boys carrying the lanterns; both to light their way and to notify men that a woman is walking by.

2- Night Callers (Mesaharati)

If you’ve ever heard the rhyming couplet, “Esha ya nayem, wahed el dayem, Ramadan Kareem,” then you’ve interacted with a tradition dating back to the Ottoman era.

The Mesaharati appeared at a time when people didn’t have alarm clocks to wake them an hour or two before dawn for suhoor; so drummers would take money as a gift in exchange for walking through the streets and beating their drums in a certain rhythm to help people wake up. The lyrics to the couplet would tell people to wake up and pray, reminding them that “God is the One who provides you with all your needs.”

Even though nowadays a lot of people resort to using alarm clocks, you can still find several night callers around Egypt walking around before dawn, usually requested by families with young children.

3- The Ramadan Song (Wahawy Ya Wahawy)

Have you ever wondered where the phrasing of this song came from? Since we were kids, we’d keep repeating the song lyrics without understanding their meaning.

Surprisingly, it’s from pharaonic Coptic etymology -there are two stories behind that. The first dates back to King Ahmose I, who, at the age of 16, expelled the Hyksos only five years after ruling Egypt in 1550 BC. The story says that whenever people saw his mother, Queen Eyaha, whose name meant ‘moon,’ they would welcome her by singing “Wahawy, Eyaha,” meaning, “Welcome, moon.”

The second story is that Egyptians living in the Fatimid era from AD 969 to 1171 started to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan by singing “Wahawy, Eyaha” (also meaning, “welcome, moon”) -a tradition that has continued to this day.

Both stories assure the words used are in Ancient Coptic and not from Arabic origin. Ever since, Egyptians have used the same song to celebrate the beginning of any lunar month, later on using it exclusively for Ramadan. Because Muslims use the lunar system to determine the beginning and end of the holy month, the use of this phrase makes perfect sense.

Since we’re already in the holy month, go out, buy a nice lantern, sing the song of your ancestors and gift your mesaharati -let’s keep these beautiful traditions alive for generations to come!

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