Overwater bungalow in the Maldives. African safari in Kenya. Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. While COVID put a damper on travel over the last couple of years, many of us would-be travelers have had to survive on insta reels and travel blogs. We’ve been dreaming up an interminable bucket list of destinations and adventures we want to enjoy before we kick the proverbial bucket. So why not add an experience that nourishes your soul as well as your mind and body?
While many of you may already have exotic destinations like Egypt on your list, complete with requisite attractions like the Great Pyramids of Giza and Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, imagine experiencing the splendor of Egypt during one of the most festive times of year.
I’m talking about an authentic, quintessential Ramadan experience, and Egypt delivers one of the best in the world. And even if I had 10,000 words to convince you, I still couldn’t do justice to the inexplicable feeling of tradition, nostalgia, and faith that consumes you when you experience Ramadan in all its glory. Plus, over the next few years (InshaAllah), Ramadan will occur during the cooler winter/spring months in Egypt, making it a perfect time to visit. So, read on to see why you should drop everything and plan your own Ramadan getaway!
The Great Mosque of Muhammed Ali Pasha at Cairo Citadel (Source: Nile Ritz Carlton Cairo, Ritzcarlton.com)
Forget your prayer apps and nifty athan clocks. Absolutely nothing compares to hearing the Athan live in Egypt, echoing reverently across the night skies from historic minarets like those of Al Azhar Mosque and Muhammad Ali Mosque, perched high over the slumbering city of Cairo. With the sound of the Fajr’s first “Allahu Akbar”, breaking the blessed silence of the night, your very soul recognizes the dawn of a new day as your body submits to the command of worship and fast. And at Maghreb, the reverberating Athan calling out from thousands of mosques becomes the sweet call of homecoming, peace, and comfort, as your heart joins the millions around you reveling in the joy of breaking fast.
A local stand selling Ramadan lanterns (Source: English.Ahram.org.eg)
2- The Fanous (Ramadan Lantern)
With the magic of the internet and the bevy of Muslim small business owners selling beautiful, handmade creations, we all have access to gorgeous Ramadan decor. However, Egypt takes the game to the next level, while taking us back in history. Explosions of dancing lights stream down the sides of buildings and crisscross bridges and alleys. Swaths of bright khayameya fabric (decorative, oriental patterned applique textile) drape across storefronts and balconies. And the ever present fanous, or lantern,made of brass, wood, fabric or plastic in an array of colors, shapes, and sizes greets you in every window and on every corner. Why a lantern, you ask? Well, dating back to 358 AH, during the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt, historians report that upon the arrival of Caliphate Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah, the people and children of Egypt welcomed him by holding hundreds of lit lanterns. Others report that children were known to carry lanterns to light the way to the mosque as they sang in celebration of the holy month. While historical accounts are aplenty, the fact remains that the fanous and Ramadan decorations continue to be a community affair in modern day Egypt; neighbors come together to adorn their buildings with lifesize lanterns and banners, older generations gift younger generations with musical and chocolate lanterns and trinkets, and shopkeepers cooperate to festoon entire streets with festive lights for Ramadan.
3-The Iftar & Suhoor Experience
The food. Oh, the food. Thick mulukhiyah (finely chopped Jew’s Mallow green soup) with aromatic fried garlic. Smoked kufta, shish tawook, and kebab on the grill. Stuffed everything- chicken, duck, pigeons, grape leaves, cabbage, peppers, and zucchini. Delectable hot and cold mezze, including falafel (ta’amiya in Egypt), ful medames, sambosek, and eggplant in all its forms- pickled, pureed (baba ghanoug), and fried. Whether you try a lavish Iftar buffet in an opulent five-star hotel, break your fast on a spectacular Nile dinner cruise, or attend a pre-dawn suhoor in an elaborate, Arabian Nights-like tent complete with a tanoura (whirling dervish) performance, Egypt delivers a Ramadan experience second to none. And not just for tourists either. For those who live and work in Egypt, invitations to extravagant iftars and pre-dawn suhoors hosted by companies and businesses are par for the course. It’s like your company Christmas party- Islamified. Besides these exquisite experiences, you must find time to join the casual crowds in local neighborhoods, surrounding ful and falafel carts at all hours of the night, as well as plan to attend many homecooked gatherings hosted by friends, family and neighbors, as the “lam’a” (gathering) is the very essence of eating in Ramadan.
A 1904 German Krupp 75mm field gun looking over Cairo, atop the city’s famous Citadel (Source: Dubai Post)
4- The Ramadan Cannon
While you can technically “do Ramadan” in any Islamic country, Egypt is king when it comes to traditions. The madfa al iftar (literally cannon for breaking the fast), is an ancient tradition that began in Egypt and involves firing a single cannon shot at Maghreb to signal the start of Iftar, followed by a second firing in the early-morning hours to signal the start of the new fasting day. While some trace its origin as far back as the 15th century era of the Mamluks, others claim it was either Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt in the early 19th century or Khedive Ismail, in late-19th century Egypt. The story goes that the ruler wanted to test-fire his new cannon, and the experiment happened to coincide with Maghreb prayers. The locals thought it was fired to notify worshippers that it was time to break fast, and they celebrated the brilliant new innovation. When the ruler saw how happy his people were, he decided to fire the cannon every day in Ramadan.The madfa al iftar continues to be performed in Egypt today, live at the historic Cairo Citadel and aired nightly on TV, and the practice has spread far and wide throughout the Muslim world, to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bangladesh, and other neighboring countries.
As you zip in your taxi through the streets of Cairo near Maghreb time, you’ll notice one of the most interesting sights on this list: dinner being served in the middle of the street. Known as Mawa’ed al-Rahman (translated the Tables of the Merciful) these charity iftar banquets are arranged on streets and sidewalks in order to serve free, hot Iftar meals for the poor and needy. Anyone can sponsor a Mawa’ed al-Rahman and experience one of the most heartwarming and unforgettable moments of your life (not to metion reap the immeasurable rewards of feeding a fasting person and providing charity). But the charity doesn’t end there. Besides the traditional zakat that is done worldwide in Ramadan, you’ll also notice ordinary citizens unloading their cars and handing out boxes of dry pantry goods (rice, flour, pasta, oil, sugar, beans, etc.) and bags of freshly butchered meat to the needy. While charitable giving is the cornerstone of Ramadan and can be done anywhere, something extraordinary happens to your heart when you can see the recipient with your own eyes and he/she blesses you with a humble prayer for Allah to reward you in thanks.
6-The Taraweeh Prayers in Open Air
While many of us are used to praying Taraweeh in neat rows, on plush carpeting, with the air conditioning humming behind you, praying Taraweeh outside, in the open air, is a life-changing experience. In Egypt, most mosques are packed to the brim, so Taraweeh prayers are conducted outside in the open air, on sidewalks, courtyards, and gardens immediately encircling the mosque. Even new, architectural wonders like Al-Fattah Al-Alim Mosque, which can accommodate 17,000 worshippers inside, also offers 8,000 enviable spots in its beautiful, open air courtyard outside. And let me just say, if you do nothing else on this list, you must pray Taraweeh outside a mosque in Egypt. The mesmerizing sound of the Imam’s voice reciting the verses of Allah through the night air; the echo of other nearby mosques reverberating the same; the sight of hundreds of worshippers, standing shoulder to shoulder, heads bowed in the middle of a bustling city; the knowledge that in between each person are towering angels recording your deeds reminds you of your purpose and existence like nothing else. I dare you not to get goosebumps.
The Moez Street Mosque by Mohammad Rahmo (Source: Islamic Arts Magazine)
7- Old Cairo & Moez Street
This list could never be complete without a visit to Old Cairo’s famed Moez El Deen Street and Khan al Khalili. Historically, this was THE main street through the city in the 11th vbdscentury, and for this reason it is packed with mausoleums, mosques, historic palaces, and old-world Islamic architecure. Much of it has been restored and is a wonder to behold on an ordinary day; but add to this the element of Ramadan, and you get an experience that exudes tradition, culture, and history second to none. Upon arriving to the district (where Moez Street and Khan al Khalili intersect) at Maghreb, you’ll find juice vendors dressed in traditional tarboosh (fez) hats and garb with elaborate, brass jugs strapped to their backs, handing out cool drinks of licorice and tamr hindi to break your fast. Historic shops, spice stands, gold and silver jewelers, bazaar stands, and tiny cafes perfect for iftar or suhoor greet you on every corner, as visitors and locals alike come down in droves to enjoy the festive atmosphere. The famed area also hosts an annual Ramadan Nights Festival, including must-see folklore dancing and musical performances, art exhibitions, crafts, bazaars, and more. It’s truly a feast for the senses.
8-The Musaharaty (the one who wakes)
The musaharaty (the one who wakes) is one of the oldest, most deeply-rooted traditions of Ramadan you will experience in Egypt. For centuries, neighborhoods have awoken to the sound of the musaharaty, or Ramadan drummer, beating his drum and calling out to wake up families for suhoor before dawn. Before mobile phones and alarm clocks, generations in many Islamic countries relied on these Ramadan callers to wake them up in time for the pre-dawn meal. Greatly respected in their communities, musaharaty hold their positions for decades before passing the tradition on to others within their families, and incredibly, are known to memorize the names of all the local residents in order to call out to them by name each night of Ramadan. In an age where time and technology have virtually erased the need for these drummers, there is still something so magical about hearing the musaharaty call out “Awake oh sleeping one, awake and praise Allah” on the precious evenings of Ramadan. And while the tradition is fading fast in many countries, today, the musaharaty can still be found walking the streets of Egypt, banging his drum to honor the age-old tradition. Coincidently, as I wrap up writing this article on the eve of the very first suhoor in Cairo, I can literally hear the musaharaty passing by beneath my window. That, my friends, is priceless.
Ramadan shopping in Cairo is a tradition in its own right. In the days leading up to the start of the holy month, supermarkets convert prime floor space into colorful Ramadan tents, filled with elaborate displays of baklava, stuffed dates, dried apricots, figs, hibiscus, licorice, and every kind of nut you can imagine. The kaleidoscope of colors and scents will have you asking yourself how you ever survived without mounds of dried fruit. Bakeries become hives of activity as patrons crowd into tiny shops spinning fresh kunafa (thin, web-like spun pastry) on hot, spinning wheels and atayif (pancake-like dough) as crowds scramble to gather their dessert staples for the start of Ramadan. Neighborhood gift shops and pop-up stands burst at the seams with festive lanterns and decorations, while street vendors weave through moving traffic showing off their tempting Ramadan wares. By mid-month, shopping malls and downtown shops go into overdrive, as frenzied shoppers take advantage of late night hours (many as late as 2:00 a.m.) to buy new clothes and gifts for Eid. In fact, the only time you’ll find shops closed (and many streets shockingly quiet and deserted) are mornings, as schools, shops, and businesses adjust their working hours to accommodate the fasting populations.
10- The Ramadan Pop Culture
Ramadan pop culture is a living, breathing, thing in Egypt and the Middle East. Nothing signals the start of Ramadan quite like hearing the twinkling notes of Ramadan Gana (Ramadan is here) and Wahawi ya Wahawi, as a wave of nostalgia smacks you in the face. Classic Ramadan songs define the quintessential Ramadan experience in Egypt, and you will hear them literally everywhere: in shops, bakeries, malls, restaurants, and even on the radio and TV. Because Egyptian TV and cinema dominated the airwaves for decades in the Middle East, generations across so many countries are familiar with these songs and grew up watching Egyptian programming in Ramadan. Fawazeer Ramadan (Ramadan Riddles), an elaborate showcase of music, costumes, and dancing by the likes of entertainers Fatouta (the late Samir Ghanem), Nelly and Sherihan, as well as children’s favorites like “Bogy and TamTam”, have become synonymous with Ramadan for new generations as well, as these nostalgic characters adorn banners, tablecloths, trinkets, and toys. And the raving popularity of Egyptian Ramadan TV programming across the Middle East, in the form of mosalselat (TV dramas), hilarious variety shows, game shows, and talk shows hosted by celebrities from across the Arab World have become Ramadan Must-See TV. You literally cannot go 10 feet without seeing billboards for these much anticipated shows.
So as you ponder your next move in the great travel game, keep Ramadan in Egypt at the top of your list for your next family getaway. Ramadan Kareem!
Rania Emara is a writer and author of children's and YA fiction who graduated from Oakland University in Michigan with a BA in Political Science and a teaching certificate in ESL. Besides writing, she is an editor and ISO certified quality management consultant, with 20+ years of experience in healthcare operations, quality management and communications. She is a wife, a mother of two boys, an educator, a chef, a psychologist, a nurse, a peacekeeper, a booknerd, and a finder of remotes. She maintains a healthy obsession for pizza, coffee, books, planners, and Turkish dramas, with a serious case of wanderlust.