A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Fanus Lanterns of Ramadan: Folklore and Tradition

Cairo Fawanis Sellers, Early 20th Century
The rapid descent of the region into the lower circles of hell makes it easy to neglect the  social and cultural and historical mission we claim for this blog. I'm particularly remiss this year in Ramadan posts, a third of the way into the holy month.

The Fanus, (also Fanous or Fanoos, Arabic plural fawanis 
فوانيس, فانوس رمضان ), while primarily Egyptian in its origins, has spread beyond the Valley of the Nile: it is a Ramadan lantern, usually lit by a candle, modeled loosely on a mosque lamp and used to light streets, mosques, balconies and homes during Ramadan.

The word itself is clearly from Greek phanos (φανός, a torch or lantern), perhaps directly or via Coptic which has many loan words from Greek.

Modern Fawanis
Inexpensive and cheaply-made fawanis are often made from scrap metal, and as a 2011 AP story noted, the traditional trade is dying in Egypt, replaced by an influx of Chinese copies:
As a symbol, the fanoos is somewhat similar to a Christmas tree or a menorah. It is hung on balconies during Ramadan and takes the center of dinner tables when families gather to break-fast together.
The history of the fanoos in Egypt stretches back to the Fatimid Empire, which ruled large swaths of the Muslim world from Cairo starting in the 10th century. But, after nearly a century, the future of the Egyptian fanoos is under threat.

Less than a dozen fanoos makers remain in Cairo, as cheap Chinese imports and decades of government corruption have made plying their trade nearly impossible.

“Our great-grandfathers did this work, but our kids won’t,” said Rida Ashour, who stopped making the fanoos about 10 years ago.
Also see this 2009 Al-Ahram Weekly  story, "Lights of Faith."

Mention of the fanus also gives me an excellent reason to refer to my own post from Ramadan 2012: "'Wahawi ya Wahawi Eyaha': Is it an Ancient Egyptian Chant?" This is a traditional chant sung while lighting the fanus lamps at sundown during Ramadan. As my post notes, traditions says this is an Ancient Egyptian chant, and it has no clear meaning in Arabic. In Ancient Egyptian snd Coptic it may mean something like "Welcome, Moon." "Eyaha" is suggestive: iah is "moon" in Coptic, which could be relevant to Ramadan, obviously, though older traditions associate it with the Pharaoh Ahmose ("born of the Moon").(And note the knowledgeable comment on the original post.)

It's interesting that the earlier quote on Fawanis attributes the modern tradition to the early Fatimids, though of course Ancient Egyptians had lanterns,while my link on Wahawi ya Wahawi also attributes the chant to the Fatimid era, despite suggesting Ancient Egyptian origin. Regular readers may recall that many folk etymologies of the ubiquitous Egyptian term أحا (aḥa, a7a), widely considered profane though no one knows why, also attribute its etymology (for various incompatible reasons) to the Fatimids. What is it about the Fatimids that attracts so much folkloric accreditation?

Yes, of course, they founded Cairo (the walled city with its current name), but Fustat and other town were already there. Why is Egypt's only Shi‘ite dynasty credited with so much folkloric tradition?

At times I wish The Middle East Journal wasn't devoted just to the post 1945 Middle East, but it is. Why are the Fatimids so popular as a folk origin for customs ranging from religious rites to profanity  (if أحا  is even profane)?  Comments and suggestions are welcome.

But if you haven't read my 2013 post you may have no idea what Wahawi ya Wahawi Eyaha sounds like. Here it is, from a modern song, embedded in Arabic: Wahawi is accented on the first syllable Unlikely in Arabic) .Eyaha tends to sound like Eyoha.:


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