An array of traditional metal lanterns. Another popular lantern is one draped in a colourful tent fabric, traders say. Image Credit: Ramadan Al Sherbini/Gulf News

Cairo: Local manufacturers of festive lanterns, a unique centuries-old feature of the Muslim month of Ramadan in Egypt, have a reason to celebrate. Their products have re-established a foothold at the Egyptian market, years after they were outrivalled by lanterns made in China.

“Probably, this is the happiest Ramadan I have ever seen,” said Mahmoud Atta, who has been in the lantern-making trade for more than 30 years.

“At last people have come to recognise the value of the Egyptian lantern after years of fascination with the Chinese lantern,” added Atta, who works in the Old Cairo district of Al Sayda Zainab.

“The Egyptian lantern is the true symbol of Ramadan celebration unlike the meaningless Chinese lantern.”

In the weeks before the start of Ramadan this year, stores across mostly Muslim Egypt have displayed a variety of elaborately decorated lanterns to attract clients.

Topping the line are lanterns made of recycled tin cans and stained glass, long associated with celebrating Ramadan in Egypt.

Another popular lamp is a lantern draped in a colourful tent fabric known as Al Khayamiya, according to traders.

“People of different ages are also attracted to the wooden lantern that has made its appearance this year with engraved Islamic inscriptions manufactured in Damietta,” said Samir Farhat, a veteran dealer in festive lanterns, referring to the Egyptian Mediterranean city famed for its furniture industry.

“The demand for the tin, wooden and Al Khayamiya lanterns is high because they reflect the genuine atmosphere of Ramadan,” added Farhat amid a thicket of lanterns in his shop in the quarter of Al Sayda Zainab.

“Their beautiful and bright shapes have attracted even children away from the Chinese lanterns, which are mere toys,” he said.

“The Egyptian lantern is also durable and can operate for several years due to its good way of manufacture and strong materials.”

Last year, Egypt banned the import of foreign lanterns in an attempt to protect the local industry. The ban was part of a wider governmental effort to preserve Egypt’s traditional handicrafts.

Some older generation shoppers are jubilant too.

“I have bought two Egyptian lanterns this year: One tin lantern for my seven-year-old grandchild. The second is a big-sized Al Khayamiya lantern to hang as a decoration in the balcony of my apartment,” said Makhlouf Abdul Azeem, a pensioner.

“My grandchild is excited about his lantern. Me too. I’d like him to live the joy we always had when we used to play with lanterns out on the streets on the nights of Ramadan when we were children,” added the 66-year-old man. “I felt upset when I saw that the Chinese lanterns swept the Ramadan market although Egyptians are the masters of this craft. Thank God the Egyptian lantern is back at the top.”

This year, prices of festive lanterns start from 40 Egyptian pounds (Dh16.6 ) apiece, according to traders. The tags can surge to 900 pounds for the king-sized ornamental lanterns popular with hotels and the Ramadan-themed coffee shops.

The first candle-lit lanterns came to be used in Egypt on the seventh day of Ramadan in 362AH (Islamic calendar) on June 11, 972AD, when residents of Cairo took to the streets in the evening to welcome the arrival of their new Fatimid ruler Al Moez Lidin Allah, say some historians.

From then on, the candle-lit lanterns have become a feature of Ramadan. The lantern-making industry thrived under the Fatimids, who ruled Egypt for nearly two centuries.

In recent years, Egyptian makers of lanterns have replaced candles with tiny lamps to vie with the battery-operated lanterns made in China.