Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 August 2009
Issue No. 961
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lights of faith

Giovanna Montalbetti examines the origins, and wonder, of the Ramadan lantern

photos: Sherif Sonbol Click to view caption
photos: Sherif Sonbol

Nothing is quite as comforting as light. Since the beginning of time man's deepest fears and worries have seemed smaller in its presence. Light is the archetype for all that is good and powerful in cultures worldwide. No other physical phenomenon has its spiritual quality. It is part of what Carl Jung called the universal "collective unconscious". From the first fires to our modern, electrically lit cities, light has not only enabled us to prosper, but provides solace for the soul. Darkness, no matter how deep, can be overcome by one small, flickering flame.

The symbolism of light is complex. Light can be innocent, virtuous, or it can be blinding, destructive. It became a representation of the power of righteous gods in all cultures, a metaphor for the hope that despite the eternal struggle, good will prevail over evil.

Light plays an important role in celebrations across the world. In China, for instance, new year festivities end with the lantern festival, which takes place on the full moon of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Its origins date back 2,000 years. There are astonishing displays of lanterns at night, accompanying folkloric dances and other entertainment during the day.

Christians and Jews also use light to celebrate major festivities. During Advent, which marks the beginning of the Christian church's year -- its origins date from the late fifth century -- a candle is lit during each of the four Sundays prior to Christmas to celebrate Jesus Christ's birth.

Hanukkah, during which Jews commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by Judas Maccabeus in 165 BCE, is also celebrated by lighting candles in a special candelabra, the menorah.

Light is central in a number of religious texts. The Bible and the Torah include many references to the importance of light as a symbol and gift of God. The most famous is probably in Genesis 1:3: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light."

Surat An-Nur (Quran 24:35), reads: "Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His light is as if there were a niche and within it a lamp: the lamp enclosed in glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His light: Allah doth set forth parables for men: and Allah doth know all things."

Egypt resounds with the echo of these verses. Ramadan celebrations include the making and display of fawanis, lanterns made of tin and coloured-glass. There are different theories regarding the origins of this typically Egyptian custom which is spreading to other Muslim countries. According to some scholars the fanous (singular of fawanis ) developed as an extension of the torches used in the Pharaonic festivals celebrating the rising of the star Sirius. For five days the Ancient Egyptians celebrated the birthdays of Osiris, Horus, Isis, Seth and Nephtys (one on each day), lighting the streets with torches.

Others, such as Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi, in Kitab Al-Mawa'iz wa Al-I'tibar Bi Dhikr Al-Khitat wa Al-Athar, see fawanis as a development of the Christmas candles of the Copts. This would explain the name of the lamps, fanous, which can be traced back to the Demotic Greek term phanos, meaning beeswax candle.

Other sources suggest the present Ramadan fanous tradition began during the rule of Saladin (1174-1193 AD), though the most widespread account of the lantern's origins places it a little earlier, when Fatimid leader Al-Muizz li-Din Allah entered Egypt on 15 Ramadan of 358 AH (969 AD), and Egyptians greeted him with lamps and torches.

There is yet another version of the origins of the lantern, attributing its development to the Fatimid caliphate. The story goes that the caliph would check for the moon marking the beginning of the holy month accompanied by children who lit his way with lanterns while singing songs.

For centuries after, children would gather during Ramadan nights with their lanterns to play games, go around asking for nuts and sweets and to sing and listen to stories.

Although many of the modern fawanis are battery lit, these artefacts remain popular among both the young and old, though now Chinese imports, some including sound and motion, are increasingly replacing more traditional designs.

In a city that has amazed travellers for its spectacular illumination for a millennia, the fawanis are continuing the wonder. As local artists present their designs in tin and coloured glass, they share a bit of childhood magic with their customers, redolent of a more innocent age.

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