The firing of cannon often marked the beginning of a battle, calling soldiers to arms. Seen by many as simply a weapon of war, cannon have found another, more peaceful application in parts of the Muslim world. Nowadays, Muslims fasting for Ramadan glance impatiently at their watches and clocks, waiting for the end of the fast day. Historically, before the proliferation of mobile or even civic clocks, there had been another, louder, more spectacular method of announcing ifṭār—the firing of a cannon.
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. If the call to prayer wasn’t used, a so-called ‘Ramadan drummer’ roamed the streets at sunset and sunrise to announce the beginning and end of the fast. But when a call to prayer or a drummer was not loud or spectacular enough, a Ramadan cannon might be employed. The cannon are 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.
Whilst some historians tace the tradition back to the Mamluk ruler Sayf al-Dīn Khushqadam (r. 1461–1467), the most common account places the origin of the ‘Ramadan cannon’ 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 coincidentally intended to have some of his locally produced (military) cannon tested 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.
Whether or not this story is a factual account or folklore, it is true that the earliest European writings on this tradition all date from around the 1850s. For example, Christopher Oscanyan writes in The Sultan and His People (1857):
“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 is true for suḥūr, when the fast begins again in the morning. The following account from Istanbul is found in an 1852 issue of The Knickerbocker:
“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 cannon 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 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 such as Qatar, Yemen, and Bahrain, and can be observed across the Muslim-majority areas of the Indian subcontinent.
Despite the custom of firing cannon being the same across all of these countries, the types of artillery employed differs vastly. Some states resolutely choose modern military hardware over traditional cannon. 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 commonly used in ceremonial roles around the world, and is often employed for gun salutes. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf state of Sharjah use custom-made 75mm breech-loading steel cannon 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 firing of the gun 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. This ensures the loud reports of Ramadan are still heard—a task upheld by the Palestinian Ṣandūqa family for about a century.
Other countries prefer to use traditional, muzzle-loading cast cannon. In Bosnia, cannon are fired during Ramadan from the Žuta Tabija fortress in Sarajevo. Despite being banned during the Communist period, Sarajevans and tourists alike now 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.
A similar ceremony remains commonplace in Egypt itself, home of the Ramadan cannon tradition. Each year, Cairo authorities bring out a German Krupp 75 mm field gun manufactured in 1904, which is nicknamed al-ḥājja Fāṭima, after Sayf al-Dīn Khushqadam’s wife. The folk story relates that 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—lending her name to the cannon used thereafter. Cannon 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 using blank rounds instead.
There is also the old 1-pounder cannon at Raisen Fort, a fortress at the peak of a hill in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Every Ramadan, the old cannon is placed at the highest point of the fortress and prepared to fire with about 300 g of gunpowder. 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 the pride of a rich religious and cultural legacy. But, also 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, and the tradition is often amongst the first 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 COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the robust nature of the cannon themselves, the practice of signalling via cannon at Ramadan remains vulnerable.
A version of this article originally appeared on Silah Report. Omer Sayadi is a researcher who studies symbols, weapon markings, and vexillology of the MENA region. He holds a Master’s degree in Arabic & Islamic Studies from KU Leuven.