In the predawn hours of my first morning in Aswan, Egypt, I woke up to the chants of a call to prayer reverberating from mosque minarets. It’s Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of observance, and the melodic cadence of these Arabic words resonated daily, beckoning the faithful to nearby mosques for the 5 am prayer. I head to the window of my cruise ship quarters to watch the activity below as Muslims, working outside, unable to make it to the mosques, pause to lay blankets, face the direction of Mecca and pray. This Ramadan ritual that I feel privileged to experience is an unintended benefit of timing my trip in April.
Exploring Egypt during Ramadan offers a unique experience of Egyptian culture with celebrations, culinary creations, decorations, and design finds that surface once a year.
Ramadan is a month-long religious observance for Islam, the official religion of Egypt, requiring the faithful to fast from sunup to sundown and pray five times a day. This year, Muslims celebrate Ramadan from March 22, 2023, through April 20, 2023, followed by the Eid al Fitr festival on Friday, April 21, 2023, a feast with family and loved ones.
Ramadan takes place during the ninth month of the Muslim lunar year, commemorating the revelation of the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad by the Holy Spirit Gabriel. Specific dates of the Islamic holy month change yearly since Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar.
Muslims first arrived in Egypt in 640 B.C. and today, comprise 85% of Egypt’s population, a demographic that defines the country’s cultural identity and way of life. The majority of Egypt’s Muslim population practices the religion of Islam, which is how Cairo earned its nickname as the city of one thousand mosque towers, known as minarets. Before loudspeakers and technology, callers known as muezzins climbed up to the mosque minarets to announce calls to prayer. The Egyptian government started an initiative to standardize the call to prayer, known as the Adhan, to reduce noise pollution from the cacophony of multiple mosques chanting Adhans simultaneously. In Cairo, many mosques broadcast a single Adhan in a shared signal.
During this sacred time, Muslims conduct charitable giving, or what is known as “zakat,” gifts of food and money to the poor that also aim to purify their wealth and cleanse the soul. Cities are alive with festive energy in the streets and stores as the faithful shop for decorations, gifts for loved ones, and special ingredients to prepare the home and meals. “At sunset, Egyptians will have their Iftar (the Breakfast), so the streets of big cities, especially Cairo and Alexandria, will be jammed with traffic as people try to get home before Iftar, says Mustafa Seif, Vice President of Cairo Transport & Touring. As a woman traveling alone in the Middle East, I wanted the expertise and security of a reputable tour operator. Cairo Transport & Touring provided local, English-speaking guides and a dedicated security guard to accompany my group everywhere.
A visit to Cairo’s historic Islamic quarter, populated with mosques, churches, and markets, offers an intimate encounter with the customs and traditions of Ramadan. Shop the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar for Ramadan sweets, treats, and gifts, and stroll Moaez Street, a pedestrian street next to the bazaar lined with medieval architecture bustling with locals and tourists. The area, known as “Old Cairo,” earned the UNESCO designation as a World Heritage Site in 1979.
I wanted to immerse myself in Ramadan’s spirit fully, so I visited one of Cairo’s most iconic mosques, the Mohammed Ali Mosque. The Turkish-style mosque has twin minarets, the highest in all of Egypt, each towering 275 feet. It resides within the walls of The Citadel of Saladin, a medieval Islamic defense fortress perched on a hill with panoramic views of the city skyline. The Muhammed Ali Mosque is known as the “Alabaster Mosque” for the marble paneling on its interior and exterior walls.
The central dome radiates natural light, illuminating the prayer floor below where we gather with my guide Amir, a practicing Muslim, to talk about his beliefs. “The point of Ramadan is to feel the same feelings as poor people and to appreciate and thank God for what we have. We fast for self-control and abstain from bad behavior and desires. You have to be very spiritual during the fasting hours. Restaurants invite people to eat for free, and people waiting in the streets will throw you food and drink,” says Amir, who was fasting during our long, action-packed days, often in sweltering temperatures of 100 degrees or more. During the fast, Muslims are prohibited from eating or drinking anything, not even water. If Amir was hungry or thirsty, he never showed his discomfort, inspiring my admiration for his self-discipline and stamina.
I appreciated Amir’s candid conversation with us Western tourists about his faith. It’s moments like these, when we can better understand each other and find common ground, that remind me why I travel—when you know more, you fear less about people and places different from your world.
Later that evening, I strolled the streets to enjoy the celebratory and friendly atmosphere. I passed restaurants setting up long Ramadan tables outside, known as Maedat Al-Rahman, The Merciful Table of Food, serving free meals to the poor and passersby.
The glow of colorful, ornate lanterns known as Fanoos illuminate public spaces, stores, restaurants, and homes. Craftspeople handmake these candle-lit lanterns from copper or tin with colorful glass and geometric cutouts referencing Egyptian folklore and Islamic designs. Fanoos originated centuries ago among practicing Muslims who carried them to light the way to the mosque for prayer. Other curious spectacles that caught my eye were exaggerated Egyptian cartoon characters in the form of statues and dolls, adding a dose of humor to the Ramadan decorations.
During Ramadan in Egypt, the faithful use a special greeting, “Ramadan Kareem,” meaning “Ramadan is Generous,” spreading cheer and festive generosity. “Ramadan in Egypt is unique because the atmosphere is like Christmas in terms of the festive mood and scenery. There is a generous and positive atmosphere,” explains Mustafa.
Experiencing this holy month was perspective-shifting as I witnessed the best of humanity’s many random acts of kindness from joyful, generous people. As someone seeking meaningful connections and authentic experiences beyond stereotypical sightseeing, a visit to Egypt during Ramadan offers a detour from the guidebooks for a deeper dive into the heart and soul of the culture.
What to know before you go:
As a Western tourist, I had some trepidation about visiting Egypt during Ramadan. I was concerned that many attractions and establishments would be closed or keep irregular operating hours. Ramadan does change the rhythms and daily routines of the Egyptians. Standard business hours are 9 am to 5 pm daily except Friday, the Egyptian day of rest, which is the equivalent of our Sunday. During Ramadan, operating hours change, with many establishments opening an hour later and closing an hour earlier; however, most major hotels and tourist attractions keep regular hours. If you travel during Ramadan, check the operating hours of your intended destination.
As a tourist, I recommend dinner reservations after sunset because most restaurants will be at full capacity. During Ramadan, people tend to eat out late, from midnight to sunrise, and many restaurants will stay open to accommodate late dinners.
I invite you to learn more about all Egypt has to offer,
in two new episodes of The Design Tourist
featuring Cairo and the Nile’s archeological attractions
Watch at youtube.com/thedesigntourist.com