Centuries have passed and Ramadan festivities are ever-evolving, yet Egyptian historical monuments and mosques retain their authenticity and glory while remaining a witness to all the changes.
The first image conjured up when one thinks of Ramadan is the shimmering glow of the streets of Cairo when it’s adorned with lights cascading in every colour, mosques putting on their most glorious attire and the lingering scent of musk circulating the alleys of Khan Al-Khalili and around the Al-Hussein mosque.
That image, albeit mesmerising, must be considered as the origin of such age-long traditions.
Khan Al-Khalili’s illuminated alleys during Ramadan
Khan Al-Khalili visitors filling the cafes during Ramadan
Here is a brief summary of the origins of the rituals and traditions in the holy month.
The continuation of Ramadan’s age-old traditions recalls the great influence of the Fatimid era, while Egypt has undergone numerous cultural shifts, the collective consciousness of Egyptians experienced a complete transformation, bringing back that bygone era.
Perhaps the sentimental connection with that period is at the core of such a transformation which transcends any current traditions back into such a glorious period.
One of the most essential traditions kept alive by the Fatimids and which still has a place in our day and age, without being of technical necessity.
This profession dates back to times prior to the Fatimid’s rule, although it is widely associated with them, considering the fact that at the beginning of their rule, Caliph Al-Moez Li-Din Allah took it upon himself to wander the streets of Cairo calling on the people to rise for Sohour before the Al-Fajr prayer.
The tradition continued later on with the other Fatimid caliphs, who assigned the role of Al-Mesharati to others.
History reads on the evening of Caliph Al-Moez Li-Din Allah’s arrival, Fatimid commander Gawhar Al-Sakalli ordered the people to take to the streets of Cairo to greet and welcome the caliph, carrying candles to illuminate his path.
The people devised a method to stop the wind from putting out the light, specifically, fixing the candles on wooden bases and wrapping the fixture in leaves and leather.
It is duly mentioned that the caliph was impressed with Egyptian ingenuity and considered it an Egyptian Ramadan tradition.
The famous Ramadan chant, sung by children during Ramadan, “wahawi, ya wahawi… eyyaha” dates back to an ancient Egyptian chant to celebrate the new moon.
Originally, the chant goes “kah wi, kah wi… ehhaa”, which translates, “oh moon, what a magnificent vision you are”, the word “ehhaa” was later changed, for ease of pronunciation, to “eyyaha.”
A traditional lantern store in Cairo
Colourful Ramadan lanterns
A sweet tooth for Ramadan
Another age-old tradition installed during Ramadan by the Fatimids in Egypt are the desserts that have become a staple in every home.
Delectables such as Konafa and Qatayef have paved the way for Fatimids to install their ideologies in every Egyptian household.
Although, Konafa dates back prior to the Fatimids, the conventional method of preparation practised today is associated with that era.
Flour is mixed with water then passed through small holes on to a hot circular sheet metal, spinning counter-clockwise, which grabbed people’s attention due to the spiritual significance of the circular form in Ismaili traditions.
Traditional method of making Konafa
On the other hand, Qatayef derived its name from Qatifa (velvet) due to its smooth velvety texture.
Small disks of dough are cooked on a hot grill, later to be stuffed with nuts and then closed, which introduced Egyptians to the inseparable concept of the hidden and the manifest in Ismaili doctrine.
Reciting the whole of the Holy Quran during Ramadan is also a Fatimid tradition, in fact, the Fatimid Palace witnessed the grand celebration on 29 Ramadan that marks the end of the holy month.
The festivities included the vizier joining the caliph for Iftar, along with scholars and senior officials while Quran reciters took turns reciting the holy book.
At the end of the ceremony, the caliph commissioned the distribution of money to the scholars, reciters and every muezzin in attendance.
Judges and lawmakers would visit the mosques of Cairo and other districts to overlook the commissioned renovations.
More than 700 lanterns were lit across the land and coloured mats adorned the floors of mosques, stacked up to ten layers.
The state would dedicate a percentage of the budget specifically to purchasing Indian incense and musk to perfume all mosques throughout the holy month.
Additionally, several markets were set up and organised during Ramadan, most notably, Al-Shammaain market (candle makers) in the Al-Nahhaseen district.
This was considered to be one of the most vital marketplaces throughout the eighth and ninth century Hijri, at which ceremonial candles were sold, weighing up to ten pounds each.
Inside of Mohamed Ali Mosque in Old Cairo