The tradition of Ramadan lanterns dates back to the Fatimid era in Egypt. It became closely associated with the month of Ramadan and became a symbol of celebration and joy for Muslims during the arrival of the fasting month. Both adults and children express happiness when buying and hanging lanterns in the streets or homes. The art of lantern-making has evolved over time, with each era and profession adding its unique touch. Lantern-making has become an independent craft passed down from generation to generation. It is not limited to a specific method but allows artisans from various crafts, such as blacksmiths, carpenters, fabric makers, and cage makers, to showcase their creativity through the production of Ramadan lanterns. Children also have their own way of expressing joy by making simple paper lanterns using basic tools.
The History of Manufacturing Ramadan Lanterns
Ramadan lanterns were known during the Fatimid era when one of the Fatimid caliphs ordered mosque sheikhs to hang lamps to illuminate the streets and decorate them during Ramadan. It is said that the Fatimid caliph would go out into the streets on the night of the moon sighting to observe the crescent moon of Ramadan, and people would accompany him to light his way with bright lamps resembling lanterns. At that time, lanterns were made of metal or glass with a candle or wick for illumination. They were gradually developed to be specifically distinguished for the holy month by incorporating Islamic decorations and vibrant colors. From there, the lantern became a symbol of joy in Egypt and a beloved tradition during Ramadan.
The phenomenon of hanging lanterns is seasonal during the month of Ramadan, but their production continues throughout the year through specialized workshops or families who have inherited this craft from one generation to another. Lantern-making was done manually using glass and metal waste materials, requiring special skills and taking a long time to complete. Artisans excelled in creating various shapes and designs, showcasing their creativity. The lanterns that were manufactured throughout the year are stored and displayed for sale at the beginning of the month of Sha’ban, ready to be hung during the high season of this industry in Ramadan. The Egyptian capital, Cairo, is one of the most important cities where this craft flourishes. Specific areas, such as the area near Al-Azhar Mosque, Al-Ghuriya, and Birket Al-Fil area in Sayyeda Zeinab, have become specialized in lantern production.
China became famous for manufacturing this type of lantern and selling them during Ramadan. The production of Ramadan lanterns in China took on different shapes from the usual lanterns. Electric lanterns emerged, relying on batteries and light bulbs for illumination, as well as children’s lanterns in the form of cartoon characters or famous figures that move and sing popular Ramadan songs like “Wahawy Ya Wahawy” (a famous Ramadan song). These lanterns gained great popularity and flooded the Islamic market during Ramadan, as they were cheaper than traditional metal lanterns and resonated more with children.
Lantern-making took on a simpler aspect in the form of DIY crafts, where many people find joy in making Ramadan decorations themselves. Whether they are economically disadvantaged and cannot afford to buy a Ramadan lantern, they use paper and glue as the simplest materials available for their creation, expressing their happiness and bringing joy to their children with the arrival of the blessed month of Ramadan. Others may not be economically disadvantaged but find art in this craft and want to showcase it. These paper lanterns may not resemble traditional lanterns, and some may be quite similar in detail. However, in both cases, the paper lanterns showcase the simplicity, artistic side, and humble nature of Muslims.
The Metal Lantern
This type of lantern is considered an artistic masterpiece that connects history with the present. It is one of the most famous and oldest known lanterns. Crafting it requires experience and professionalism, making the production of metal lanterns an independent profession passed down through generations in families. They are handcrafted from metal, whether it be brass, tin, or sheet metal, and are often engraved with symbols and designs. The size of the metal lantern can vary from the largest possible to the smallest, depending on demand. Despite its high price, it remains highly sought after due to its distinctive appearance.
Fabric Ramadan Lanterns
These are called “Khayamiya” lanterns, made from a special fabric used for Ramadan decorations called “Khayamiya fabric.” This fabric is often used as tablecloths for Ramadan meals and contains various shapes and Ramadan symbols such as crescents and greetings like “Ramadan Kareem” and “Kol Aam Wa Antum Bi Khair.” The lantern structure is made from metal or wood, wrapped with Khayamiya fabric, and fitted with an interior light source, creating a beautiful effect when hung. They can be handmade or purchased from stores in various sizes and at affordable prices. The Khayamiya Street in Egypt is one of the most famous areas for the production of these types of lanterns, alongside the metal lanterns. These lanterns are commonly hung inside homes, offices, and companies, while their presence in the streets is relatively less frequent compared to other types, mainly due to their lightweight that is not suitable for outdoor use.
The glass lantern is the original type, as it initially started with the concept of a lantern as a glass cup with a candle inside and a handle to hold it. The art of Ramadan lantern-making has witnessed significant development in recent times, combining glass with its different colors and sizes with metal, and incorporating engraved symbols for decoration. This type of lantern represents the connection between art, history, and craftsmanship. They can be manufactured in various sizes, including large ones for hanging in the streets, medium-sized ones for homes and facilities, and small ones, often for children to carry in celebration of Ramadan.
- Wooden Frame Lantern: Carpentry has taken its place in the production of Ramadan lanterns. The lantern frame is made from thin wood called “Moski wood,” following the traditional design or adding unique artistic touches. It is then wrapped with Khayamiya fabric or colorful shiny bags and fitted with a light source (bulb) as usual, creating a wonderful appearance when hung. These lanterns can be handcrafted or purchased from stores in different sizes and at affordable prices. The wooden lantern market has seen a rise in popularity in recent years.
- Complete Wooden Lantern: This lantern is similar to the metal lantern but in a smaller size. It is entirely made of thin wood, and various pieces of wood are cut using an arc or laser with engraved drawings and distinctive decorations. The pieces are then assembled, and a small battery-powered light is placed inside that illuminates when shaken. This type of lantern became popular in 2020 and 2021.
This type of lantern is widespread in rural villages where the craft of cage-making is prevalent. It represents a humble tradition that expresses joy for the arrival of the holy month of Ramadan using the simplest available resources. They create lanterns using palm tree sticks, insert a light source, and wrap them with colored bags in yellow, red, green, or blue.
Small Lanterns (Medal Lanterns)
These are small plastic, wooden, or metal lanterns about the size of a handgrip, commonly known as “medal lanterns.” They can be hung alongside keys, in cars, or kept as a Ramadan memento. Some variations of these small lanterns even illuminate.