What is a Fanous?!
The light has fascinated human kind since the very beginning. The light is power and weakness in the same time. People with their religion, customs and traditions gave to the light a huge importance and for each one of us have a meaning. The light has a special role in celebration all over the world.
The Jews during Hanukkah commemorate the event by lightning candles in menorah, a special candelabrum. Both Christians and Jews use light in their major festivities. In China there are amazing creations of lanterns during the New Year celebrations that end with a lantern festival which origins date back 2000 years.
For Muslims the Ramadan celebrations include the display of Fawanees (plural for Fanous). The Fanous is considered by some the extension of the torches used in the Pharaonic festivals celebrating the rising of the Sirius star in which the ancient Egyptians were celebrating the birthdays of Osiris, Horus, Isis, Seth and Nephtys by lighting the streets with torches.
Nowadays the Fanous or the Ramadan Lantern is just a decoration and an entertainment for the children. From all the Islamic countries, the Fanous is most known in Egypt. You can see pretty lanterns hanging out in the streets, balconies, shops and mosques. It is still part of the traditions that goes back in time on the Fatimid era even thou others are placing them during the rule of Saladin (1174-1193 AD). Before Ramadan starts by one day the Caliph was going out in the dark in search of the moon who was announcing the start of the Holly Month. The children with their Fanous were walking in front of the Caliph to light his path. Each child was having his own Fanous and all of them were singing songs to welcome the new month and the starting of the Ramadan.
Before electricity was available, kids from the past century loved the Fanous as it was a colorful light, their own light with which they were wandering the streets in the evenings, go around asking for nuts and sweets. If you want to associate it with a similar image you can compare it with the Halloween pumpkins that give such joy to the kids when they go trick or treat. After they were breaking their fast at sunset, the children were going out of their homes, out on the streets and the only light was coming from their Fanous. Imagine a dark old city just enlighten by dozen of colored lights, it must have been a fairy tale. They were getting together and sing songs like the famous “ Wahawy ya wahawy” , play kid games or visit an elder who was telling them stories.
Another story about the origin of the lantern is that the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim asked all the sheikhs of mosques to hang lanterns on the doors during the Ramadan month in order to illuminate the streets of Cairo. So they did and since then it became a custom that never vanished.
Other story says that on the same age of the Fatimid Caliph, the women were allowed to leave their homes only in Ramadan month and there was a must for them to be accompanied by a boy. The kid was carrying a Fanous and walking before them to light their path and announce their presence in caution for the men to move from the women way.
Another interesting story comes from a Coptic Christian tradition. It states that the Christians were using candle lanterns to celebrate during Christmas. They were lightning colorful candles and using them as table decoration. Even today the candle light is a symbol for Christianity, in churches or in other Holly holidays. The Egyptian historian Al Maqrizi had a theory in which he explain how the Fanous is a development of the Christmas candles by tracing back the Demotic Greek word Phanos meaning beeswax candle.
The traditional materials to make a Fanous are tin and colored glass and use a candle inside to light it. The modern Fanous still has its charm but not like in the past cause now they are battery operated. The Fanous comes in different sizes and colors and even different shapes. The most common ones are in the shape of minaret, crescent or tree. The Egyptian craftsmen are extremely talented and very passionate in their work usually passing their heritage from generation to generation. The Fawanees ( plural from Fanous ) makers are humble people who work hard to produce thousands of lanterns needed to fulfill the demand during Ramadan. They work in their small shops or simply directly on the streets always happy to show you their work. They use basic tools and fire flame creating with raw talent in recycled tins. In the past, the lanterns were made in brass and cooper but now you can find even plastic ones from the Chinese market that even play music.
The Fanous, no matter how it looks and from where it came, represents a unique symbol of the Ramadan month. It moved from generation to another and is usually accompanied by a famous song written by Ahmed Sherief that goes like this:
“Wahawi ya Wahawi (metaphorically meaning the light of fire)/Iyuha (an unknown word which is used to rhyme in between)/Ruht ya Sha’ban (you have gone, O Sha’ban referring to the month before Ramadan)/Wi Gheet ya Ramadan (You have gone, O Ramadan)/Iyuha/Bint el Sultan (The daughter of the Sultan)/Iyuha/Labsa el Guftan (Is wearing her caftan)/Iyuha/Yalla ya Ghaffar (For God the forgiver)/Iduna el Idiya (Give us this season’s gift)/Yalla ya Ghafar. “