This article originally appeared on the 7th of May 2020 on the website of Silah Report written by yours truly.
The sun slips slowly and majestically behind the horizon, heralding the end of the Muslim fast. Yet another day on the Ramadan-calendar crossed out. Since everything in this day and age runs like clockwork, fasting Muslims glance impatiently at their watches and clocks spread throughout the house awaiting that exact time of the sun’s setting. Historically, however, there has been another, louder, more spectacular method of announcing ifṭār – the firing of a cannon.
In pre-modern times, however, the lack of clock and digital watches was compensated for through simpler means. To ensure the mass transmission of the message to both start (suḥūr) and break (ifṭār) the fast across a town or city the most well-known and continuously practiced method of announcing the suḥūr and ifṭār was the call to prayer (ādhān) that coincides with the rising and setting of the sun. To hear the touching reverberation of the ādhān rise up from the mosque’s minarets is a true sound to behold in itself. If the call to prayer wasn’t used a so-called ‘Ramadan drummer’ traditionally roamed the streets at sunset and sunrise to announce the beginning and end of the fast by banging his drum and singing his way through the settlement’s streets and alleyways.
The reason something as ancient as the Ramadan drummer is kept alive in some Muslim cities, is the tradition and nostalgia which evokes a centuries-old shared Muslim heritage associated with the period of Ramadan. It’s exactly this attempt at keeping a shimmer of the past an active part of the cultural experience associated with the fast that brings us to the subject of this article: the Ramadan cannon. Because a substantial part of the Muslim community breaks its fast with a boom. Literally. The cannon is fired to notify Muslim worshippers that the time of ifṭār has officially arrived, after which the call to prayer starts to echo through the city. A second firing during the early-morning hours then signals the start of a new fasting day at sunrise, the suḥūr. It is usually a very popular ceremony attended by large crowds, but remains largely under-reported outside of local media.
Despite some historians tracing the tradition back to the Mamluk ruler Sayf al-Dīn Khushqadam (r. 1461-1467), the most common account places the origin of the cannon firing somewhere during the rule of Muḥammad ʿAlī (r. 1805-1848), appointed viceroy over Ottoman Egypt and regarded as the founder of modern Egypt. As mentioned in Shahr Ramaḍān fī al-Jāhiliyya wal-Islām (1973), by Dr. Aḥmad al-Manzalāwī of Cairo University, the story popularly goes that Muḥammad ʿAlī intended to get some of his locally produced cannons tested for military purposes during Ramadan. As time for ifṭār grew near, the citizens of Cairo were alerted by a loud bang. They mistakenly took this for the official sign of sunset, and thanked their ruler for such an innovation. Since then, the custom continued and spread throughout the region.
Whatever the case, it is true that the earliest European writings on this tradition all date from around the 1850’s. Christopher Oscanyan in his The Sultan and His People (1857) writes that:
“When the cannon booming over the Bosphorus announces the setting sun, each one partakes sparingly of these refreshments, and having regaled himself with the fumes of tobacco, attends to his regular sunset prayers (…)”,
The same goes for the morning, when the fast begins (suḥūr). As is written in the Knickerbacker New-York Monthly Magazine XL (1852) an account from Istanbul states:
“By half-past two o’clock A.M. he has taken his last meal, the cannon has sounded, and, as he spent the greater portion of the night in conversation with his friends, he now throws himself upon his couch, and reposes until about noon.”
From Muḥammad ʿAlī’s Egypt, the custom of firing cannons at dawn and sunset spread through the Levant all the way up to the core Ottoman regions on the European side of the Bosporus, including Istanbul and the Balkans. The tradition was adopted by the Saudi state about 75 years ago after its successful conquest of the two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina in the 1920s. It was subsequently introduced in Sharjah (one of the United Arab Emirates) during the rule of Ṣaqr bin Sulṭān al-Qāsimī (r. 1951-1965) and in Dubai during the 1960s by Rāshid bin Sa`īd Āl Maktūm (r. 1958-1990). The practice is also attested in other nations of the Arabian Peninsula like Qatar, Yemen and Bahrain, and across the Muslim-majority areas of the Indian subcontinent.
Despite the custom of firing cannons being the same across all of these countries, the types of artillery differs vastly. Some states resolutely choose modern military hardware over traditional cannons. The Gulf state of Dubai, for example, uses a total of six British Ordnance QF 25-pounder howitzers to fire blank shot. The 25-pounder is internationally commonly used in ceremonial roles, among others for gun salutes. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf state of Sharjah use custom-made steel 75mm breech-loading cannons mounted on a set of solid rubber tires.
In Jerusalem, the British army presented a US-made 75mm M1916 howitzer to the local Muslim authorities in 1945. The gun was previously used during the First World War, but was subsequently used by the British for training purposes. The cannon in Jerusalem was traditionally fired atop Gordon’s Calvary, a hilltop northeast of the Damascus Gate known to the Arabs as al-Sāhira Cemetery. In 1996, the actual firing came to an end when the supplier of gunpowder in Ramallah went out of business. Because the Israeli authorities refuse to make gunpowder available for the event, tube-launched fireworks attached to the side of the howitzer are used instead to ensure the bangs of Ramadan are still heard, a task upheld by the Palestinian Ṣandūqa family for about a century.
Other countries prefer to hold on to traditional cast-iron cannons. In Bosnia, a cannon is fired during Ramadan from the Žuta Tabija fortress in Sarajevo. Despite previously being stopped during the Communist period, Sarajevans and tourists alike gather there eagerly to observe the firing of the cannon and to enjoy the ifṭār meal. Since 1997, Smail Krivić, the Ramadan Cannoneer of Sarajevo, has been responsible for firing the ceremonial gunpowder over the city with his custom-made 12-pounder muzzle-loading cannon. The same is true for Egypt itself, home of the Ramadan cannon tradition. Each year, Cairo authorities bring out a German Krupp 75mm field gun manufactured in 1904 nicknamed al-ḥājja Fāṭima.
The story goes that the aforementioned Sayf al-Dīn Khushqadam wasn’t actually at home when his dignitaries came to congratulate him on the use of the cannon to announce the end of the fast. His wife al-ḥājja Fāṭima welcomed them instead and ordered them to keep this custom alive for every Ramadan to come, which is why they named the cannon after her. Cannons used to be fired from Cairo’s Citadel fortress with live ammunition until 1859, when the whole area became densely inhabited and authorities switched to blank rounds instead.
Last but not least, I should mention Raisen Fort, a fortress at the peak of a hill in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Every Ramadan, an old working 1-pounder cannon is dusted off and carried physically to the highest point of the fortress. There, it is placed on a carriage and prepared to fire with about 300g of gunpowder, creating a blast loud enough to notify the town of Raisen and the surrounding villages of the time of ifṭār and suḥūr. The practice was introduced under the Nawabs of Bhopal (1707-1949), a dynasty of autonomous Muslim kings serving under the Mughal Empire, and later the Maratha and British Empires.
Like so many things in the Middle-East and the Muslim world, the Ramadan cannon is part of a centuries-old tradition kept alive through nostalgia and pride of a rich religious and cultural legacy. But like many things in the Middle-East and the Muslim world, the Ramadan cannon is too often subject to the whims and unpredictability of the region, making it the first thing to be abandoned when a civil war breaks out, when a secular regime decides to crack down on religious practices or even now, during the Coronavirus crisis. Despite the robust nature of the cannon, its practice remains vulnerable. But like the saying goes, old habits die hard, and that is especially true for that part of the world.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.