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Egypt's ancient craft of lantern-making under threat

Iconic Fanoos lantern, the lost joy of Ramadan in Egypt's cost-of-living crisis
6 min read
03 April, 2023
The ancient craft of lantern-making has experienced a resurgence in Egypt, the birthplace of the iconic Ramadan lantern, but the dire economic situation is posing a threat as stacks of lanterns remain unsold even as Ramadan is well underway.

As the holy month of Ramadan gets underway, Cairo's traditional lantern makers and vendors are pinning all their hopes on the Egyptian public, willing them to buy what once was seen as a must-have item and traditional treasure of the fasting month.

They know that the enjoyment of Egyptian families will be incomplete without the fawanees – the finely-wrought iconic lanterns which are believed to have originated as a Ramadan custom in Egypt during the Fatimid Caliphate over a thousand years ago, and which are hung up in the entrances to neighbourhoods and in the doorways of houses during the fasting month, as well as being given as gifts to children who carry them around.

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On Bab El Bahr Street, next to Bab Zuweila, one of the remaining gates in the ancient city wall of Cairo's old city, or Fatimid Cairo, vendors stack up their lanterns in order of size, from 10 centimetres to over 3 metres tall.

However, the piled-up lanterns on display point to a worrying trend that is causing huge anxiety for the owners of the lantern workshops – that they won't be able to sell them. Many have taken a risk by funding their workshops with bank loans, or by borrowing from family.

Small lantern-making initiatives are relying on the public supporting the local lantern-manufacturing industry, which has declined in recent decades, a trend that accelerated when an influx of cheap, Chinese lanterns flooded the market. Many of the Chinese lanterns are plastic, and fitted with tiny speakers to sing and dance to popular Ramadan songs, transforming one of the ancient symbols of the blessed month into a tacky parody of itself, in the eyes of some.

A golden opportunity

In February 2022 Egypt's Central Bank imposed restrictions on imports due to a lack of dollar reserves. This included the Chinese lanterns, presenting what seemed a golden opportunity to revive the traditional industry domestically, which has been concentrated in Taht El-Rab'a Street in Fatimid Cairo going back hundreds of years.

A woman looks at the Ramadan lantern in Sayyidah Zaynab district [Photo by Fadel Dawod/Getty Images]

While some restrictions have since been lifted, the import of Chinese lanterns is still banned (though some are still smuggled in, and unsold lanterns from past years remain in stores). This reignited a nostalgia for the old-style fanoos (lanterns) which parents used to buy for Ramadan, which conjured up an image from ancient times – the messenger descending from Mount Mokattam carrying a lantern on the night of the moon sighting to give the good news - that the next day the blessed month of fasting would begin.

Today, lantern-makers have revolutionised their work, crafting lanterns from copper and "light iron" sheets, wood and plastic, and using embroidered fabrics patterned with Islamic art and calligraphy. Artists and craftspeople vie with one another to make lanterns out of bamboo, date stems, henna and reeds.

In a small workshop on Bab El Bahr street, to which lantern vendors from all over the country head to buy supplies for their shops, stands Ibrahim, a man in his fifties, in front of a high table. He is painting a lantern made from sheet iron, adding his finishing touches to it before placing it carefully on display at the front of the workshop.

Ibrahim puts the lantern next to stacks of others which he hasn't managed to sell for days, hoping that people will buy them during Ramadan, out of love for the old tradition. Ibrahim says he is overjoyed that the "craftsmanship of lantern-making" has returned to workshops in the region.

The skill had all but disappeared over the last two decades due to the invasion of Chinese lanterns, which were poor quality, but which attracted people because they were cheap and varied, and could sing songs, he says to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition.

"The craftsmen have revived their trade, after taking loans allocated to them by the state for funding small projects, enabling them to purchase modern tools that can cut through iron, wood, and plastic, and draw shapes with a laser."

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The workshops were able to manufacture huge lanterns, in various shapes, using "stambats" (computerised templates), as modern technology was utilised to make lanterns sing and make sounds, giving a modern twist to ancient art. However, Ibrahim laments the huge number of unsold lanterns that have been on display for weeks, saying: "Production went up – but during an economic slump."

The market is not encouraging

A young lantern seller (who wishes to remain anonymous) explains: "The market isn't encouraging. I'm not optimistic that shoppers and vendors are suddenly going to buy all these products any moment now, being as Ramadan has already started."

He says sadly: "We invested at the wrong time, even though we were also facing a drastic rise in the cost of raw materials, which have increased by nearly 150 percent since last year; especially the galvanised tinplate, plastic, dyes, wires and the electrical tools."

He adds that the twin threat to the lantern makers is how much debt they are in added to their struggle to sell the lanterns, as families' financial hardships cast their shadow over the lanterns market. 

The 30-year-old vendor says prices vary according to size and quality, with a tinplate lantern with stained glass panels 280 cm in height starting at 3,000 Egyptian pounds (EGP). This kind of lantern is typically hung up at the entrances to buildings. The price goes up to between 5,000 and 10,000 EGP if it is handmade from brass – these are often hung in hotel lobbies ($1 equals around 30.92 EGP).

At the mid-range are smaller metal lanterns which range from 500-1500 EGP, but the best-selling lanterns are priced between 100-300 EGP and are convertible into electric desk lamps for use when Ramadan is over.

Lantern makers hope to sell unsold Ramadan lanterns as decorative lamps after the month ends, to avoid them rusting, and to pay off some of their debts. Also, by selling them they won't need to shoulder the additional costs of storage space for them in the coming period.

The Egyptian pound's value has dropped by 97 percent since February 2022, when restrictions were placed on imports. This comes at a time in which the income of Egyptian citizens is declining dramatically, with the collapse of the currency's value and rise in prices. This situation has made mini lanterns made from wood, which cost between 20-100 EGP the most appealing option for many families, who are eager to make their children happy because they firmly believe that the delight of Ramadan cannot be complete without carrying a lantern while singing the traditional songs with your loved ones.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition with additional reporting. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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