The day’s production starts with tea at a fanous workshop in Birkat al Fil (“Pond of the Elephants”) in Cairo’s Al-Sayeda Zainab district. The international symbol of the Holy Month, Egypt introduced fanous (meaning “lamp” or “light” in Greek) to the Islamic world more than 1,000 years ago.
Craftsman Ahmed Hanafi moulds metal at one of the few remaining workshops in Cairo. Despite the influx of battery-operated, made-in-China imitations, this is still the main source of the traditional, handmade fanous which are hung during Ramadan around the Middle East.
Pure of art
Atef Salama (left) is one of the most famous fanous makers in Cairo. Now in his mid-70s, Uncle Salama, as he’s known, claims he’s the fourth generation of his family to make fanous. “It takes me weeks and sometimes months in order to make a unique fanous that I’m satisfied with,” he says.
While nearby competitors have adopted machine methods, Salama claims he’s the only craftsperson in Cairo to still make fanous the traditional way, by hand. “The biggest challenge this art faces nowadays is that people who work in it are not in love with [the craft], and they only do it for the money.”
A faded photo of a classic fanous by Atef Salama. One of Egypt’s oldest industries, fanous production has seen many changes and new trends in the past decade, but old-style designs remain the most popular in Cairo and its biggest export markets, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and the UAE.
At nearby Oum Ibrahim, which claims to be one of Cairo’s oldest workshops, a machine is used to stamp motifs in metal. Unlike Salama, Ibrahim has embraced more modern designs: last year, he says, one of his best-selling fanous featured Egyptian footballer Mohamed Salah.
Cheap and cheerful
Fabric Ramadan lanterns are strung across Al-Khayama, a street in Darb Al-Ahmar. Made by stretching cloth over simple wire frames, these are a cheaper alternative to the weightier metal versions. Fanous appearing in cafes, storefronts and homes is a clear sign that Ramadan approaches.
Lanterns hang over the entrance to Hasan Pasha Tahir, the 19th century mosque-mausoleum in Birkat al Fil, close to Salama’s workshop. Glass lamps were originally used to illuminate mosques in the Mamluk reign (1250–1517). Fanous are also mentioned in the Qu’ran (Aya 35 from Surah An Nur).
With its crescent moon and star patterns, this tall traditional-style brass fanous stands outside Oum Ibrahim’s workshop, just behind
Al-Sayeda Zainab mosque and the fish market.
Glowing down fighting
Cheap, Chinese-made lanterns were widespread in Egypt until the Ministry of Import and Trade issued a ban in 2015 to protect the trade in handmade fanous. Still, traditional makers must compete with the kind of bright, battery-powered plastic lanterns found on stalls on Alkhayma Street as their popularity has
That’s a load off
A customer secures two fanous to a delivery van outside Nabil Hussein Shata’s shop in Darb Al-Ahmar. All the lanterns produced and stockpiled in the past year must be sold in a short period before Ramadan before the cycle of production