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Visiting Egypt During Ramadan: Insider Guide to Celebration

OldCairoMosque in Egypt During Ramadan

Exploring Egypt during Ramadan unveils a vibrant tapestry of culture, from Cairo’s thousand minarets to unique traditions and flavors. This period offers a profound glimpse into the heart of Egyptian customs and celebrations. It’s an enriching journey beyond the iconic Giza Pyramids, immersing travelers in the soul of Egypt’s rich heritage.

Cairo, Egypt mosques
Cairo, Egypt is known as the city of one thousand minarets, mosque towers where prayer callers issue a chant known as the adhan at all five prayer times.

Cairo’s Religious History

Beyond the pharaohs, temples, and tombs, Cairo’s fascinating religious history shaped its culture from Egyptian pagan gods to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. 

Cairo, Egypt, muslim population, mosque minaret
Muslims comprise 85% of Egypt’s population. The majority of Egypt’s Muslim population practices the religion of Islam.

Muslims first arrived in Egypt in 640 B.C. after conquering the country from Roman rule. Today Muslims 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. 

The Mosque of Muhammad Ali, located inside the Citadel of Salah al-Din in Cairo.
Travel Journalist Karen LeBlanc visits Egypt during Ramadan for unique experiences of Egyptian culture with celebrations, culinary creations, decorations, and design finds that surface once a year.

My Ramadan Adventure in Egypt

As someone searching for meaningful connections and authentic experiences beyond stereotypical sightseeing, a visit to Egypt during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, offers a detour from the guidebooks for a deeper dive into the heart and soul of the country.

Ramadan Lanterns, known as Fanoos, Cairo, Egypt
Ramadan Lanterns, known as Fanoos, for sale at Khan el-Khalili Bazaar in Old Cairo, Egypt

Ramadan Traditions in the Streets of Cairo

Ramadan is a time of festive energy in the streets and stores as the faithful shop for decorations,  Eid al-Fitr gifts for loved ones, and unique ingredients to prepare the home and meals.

Ramadan menu, of Egyptian oriental dessert: assorted arabian pancake katayef and dates
Ramadan menu, of Egyptian oriental dessert: assorted arabian pancake katayef and dates

Evening Rituals and Iftar in Egypt

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 rush to get home before Iftar,” says Mustafa Seif, Vice President of Cairo Transport & Touring.

Egyypt Mosque
Mosque Abi Al-Hajjaj Al-Aqsari in Luxor, sounding the call to prayer known as “the adhan” from its minaret. During Ramadan, many mosques broadcast the adhan at all five prayer times.

A Morning in Old Cairo

Each morning, I wake up to Muslim chants of call to prayer at 5 am sounding from the nearby mosques. It’s an ideal time to explore Old Cairo, which comes to life as the faithful head to mosques to pray and street vendors begin opening up the markets and shops.

Khan el-Khalili Bazaar, Cairo
An Egyptian shopkeeper sells Fanoos, which originated to illuminate the way for Muslims heading to mosques for Ramadan prayers.

Old Cairo originated as a walled palace city founded in 969 B.C. by the Fatimids, an Arab dynasty that ruled most of North Africa. Today, museums, mosques, churches, and the famous Khan el-Khalili Bazaar populate Old Cairo. 

Cairo’s Islamic quarter, Old Cairo
Cairo’s historic Islamic quarter, populated with mosques, churches, and markets, offers an intimate encounter with the customs and traditions of Ramadan. The area earned the UNESCO designation as a World Heritage Site.

Coptic Christianity and Judaism in Old Cairo

Christianity and Judaism also influenced Egypt’s culture, co-existing in a religious complex atop the ruins of The Fortress of Babylon, built in 30 B.C. in Old Cairo.

The Fortress of Babylon, built in 30 B.C. Cairo, Egypt
The foundation of The Fortress of Babylon, built in 30 B.C. in Old Cairo, Egypt.

Within its walls, I visited a Coptic Christian Church, known as The Hanging Church, because it was built in the 5th century over the remains of the fortress, 45 feet above the ground.

The Hanging Church in Old Cairo, Egypt.
The Hanging Church in Old Cairo, Egypt.

Under the church’s foundation, you can see the fort’s remains. Inside, intricately carved Coptic Christian art and religious icons adorn the walls and ceilings. 

Entrance to the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, Egypt.
Entrance to the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, Egypt.

Coptic Art

Coptic art emerged as folk art, assimilating many artistic elements from various ancient world civilizations. Coptic art typically focuses on religious figures, depicting them with flat faces, round eyes, and thick eyebrows.

Interior of the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, Egypt.
Interior of the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, Egypt.

The word Coptic comes from the old Egyptian word ‘Agbet,” which means the flood and the inhabitants of its land.

Interior of the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, Egypt.
Interior of the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, Egypt.

Another church resides inside, the Church of St. Marks, with unique artistic elements, including the inlaid ivory wood templon and religious icon paintings.

Coptic Christian art in the Hanging Church, Old Cairo, Egypt.
Coptic Christian art in the Hanging Church, Old Cairo, Egypt.
Coptic Christian art in the Hanging Church, Old Cairo, Egypt.
Coptic Christian art in the Hanging Church, Old Cairo, Egypt.

The Holy Family’s Refuge in Cairo

The Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, celebrated as the hiding place for the Holy Family while in Egypt,  is a short walk down a pedestrian path from the Hanging Church. 

The pedestrian path leading to The Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, believed to be the hiding place for the Holy Family.
The pedestrian path leading to The Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, believed to be the hiding place for the Holy Family.

St. Sergius was built in the 4th century on top of a cave where it’s widely believed the Holy Family hid from King Herod of Palestine, who wanted to kill the baby Jesus. 

Holy Well on the floor of The Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus believed to be where the Holy Family drank from.
Holy Well on the floor of The Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus believed to be where the Holy Family drank from.

The church holds special religious status among Coptic Christians as a refuge for the Holy Family. 

A sign in The Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, denoting the underground hiding place for the Holy Family.
A sign in The Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, denoting the underground hiding place for the Holy Family.

The church invites visitors into a cave below the sanctuary that sheltered the Holy Family. From the chapel, I went downstairs under the sanctuary to see the Holy Family’s purported hiding place. 

The Holy Family's underground hiding place at The Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, Old Cairo, Egypt.
The Holy Family’s underground hiding place at The Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, Old Cairo, Egypt.

In 1171 AD, ruler Salah-Al-Din (Saladin) dismantled the Fatimid Caliphate and opened Cairo to all people outside the walled city. 

Salah Al-Din built a fortified Citadel south of the walled city on a high hill overlooking Cairo with panoramic views. 

 The Muhammed Ali Mosque at The Citadel of Saladin, Cairo, Egypt.
The Muhammed Ali Mosque at The Citadel of Saladin, Cairo, Egypt.

The Citadel of Saladin, a medieval Islamic-era defense fortress, housed Egypt’s rulers and state administration.  The Muhammed Ali Mosque resides within the fortress walls, known as the “Alabaster Mosque” for marble paneling on its interior and exterior walls.

 The Muhammed Ali Mosque at The Citadel of Saladin, Cairo, Egypt.
The Muhammed Ali Mosque at The Citadel of Saladin, Cairo, Egypt.

The Turkish-style mosque has the highest minarets in Egypt, two that each tower 276 feet. Inside, the central dome drinks in light, illuminating the prayer floor below, and walls and ceilings showcase intricate Islamic geometric designs. 

Ornate domes inside The Muhammed Ali Mosque, Cairo, Egypt.
Ornate domes inside The Muhammed Ali Mosque, Cairo, Egypt.

Ramadan: A Time for Reflection and Community

My tour guide Amir gathers us in a circle under the mosque dome to chat about his religious beliefs and Ramadan.  

Amir, tour guide with Cairo Transport & Touring, Cairo, Egypt.
Amir, tour guide with Cairo Transport & Touring, Cairo, Egypt.

“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 extremely hot 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.

Ornate domes inside The Muhammed Ali Mosque, Cairo, Egypt.
Ornate domes inside The Muhammed Ali Mosque, Cairo, Egypt.

“We pray five times daily at 5 am, noon, 3:30 pm,  6:15 pm, and 7:30 pm. Ideally, we pray as a group in a mosque. If you are working or can’t pray during those times, you can make up for the missed prayers at the end of the day. We read the Koran and recite passages during prayer, which lasts about five minutes. Many Muslims bring a small carpet and place the carpet facing mecca to pray,” Amir explains.

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 reminds me why I travel—when you know more, you fear less about people and places different from your world.

Wall and ceilings of the mosque display ornate geometric motifs and intricate designs. “The Muslim influence on Egyptian arts and crafts was mainly the icons they used in their paintings. You can see this in many mosques throughout Egypt,” says Mustafa Seif, Vice President of Cairo Transport & Touring.

Courtyard of The Muhammed Ali Mosque, Cairo, Egypt.
Courtyard of The Muhammed Ali Mosque, Cairo, Egypt.

Outside the mosque, a large brass clock tower that keeps time was a gift from King Louis Philippe of France to Muhammad Ali Pasha, who, in turn, gifted France one of two obelisks at the entrance Luxor Temple. That obelisk now stands in Place de la Concorde in Paris, the famous traffic circle at the bottom of the Champs Elysées.

Large brass clock tower in the courtyard of The Muhammed Ali Mosque, Cairo, Egypt.
Large brass clock tower in the courtyard of The Muhammed Ali Mosque, Cairo, Egypt.

Exploring Egypt during Ramadan offers unique cultural insight and experiences. I returned home after ten days of traveling throughout the country, enlightened with an open heart and mind.  To learn more, watch The Design Tourist travel show featuring fascinating Cairo.

What to know if you go:

During Ramadan, many establishments keep irregular hours or close, so keep that in mind when planning a visit to Egypt. 

A visa is required for Egypt, and you can get one from the Egyptian Consulate Office in your area or upon arrival in Egypt.

In Egypt, tipping comprises a significant part of many people’s wages.

Travel Journalist Karen LeBlanc visiting Egypt during Ramadan, in front of the Mosque of Muhammed Ali, Cairo, Egypt.
Travel Journalist Karen LeBlanc visiting Egypt during Ramadan, in front of the Mosque of Muhammed Ali, Cairo, Egypt.

Egyptian tour operators recommend dressing modestly in clothing that covers your back and shoulders outside the hotel area. Women should cover their arms when visiting mosques. 

Egypt’s weekly day of rest is Friday, the equivalent of Sunday in the United States. 

Islamic holidays including Ramadan, are based on the lunar calendar and change yearly. 

Standard business hours are 9 am to 5 pm daily except Friday. Many businesses also remain closed on Saturday.

For a deeper dive into Islamic art, I suggest visiting the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), which displays, preserves, and interprets Islamic artifacts. The museum houses more than 100000 artifacts covering all branches of Islamic Art from the different periods of Islamic history. 

 

Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc is a freelance writer living in Orlando, Florida with many published bylines in magazines, newspapers, and multimedia sites. As a professional lifestyle writer, Karen specializes in art, architecture, design, home interiors and personality profiles. Karen is the writer, producer and host of the streaming series, The Design Tourist (www.TheDesignTourist.com) that brings viewers a global dose of design inspiration with episodes featuring the latest looks and trends from the world’s premiere design events and shows. She also publishes a quarterly magazine on design travel that you can read by clicking the link: https://thedesigntourist.com/the-magazine/ Her journalism background includes seven years on-air experience as a TV news reporter and anchor covering a range of issues from education to politics. Her educational credentials include a Master of Arts in Mass Communications from Northeast Louisiana University and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Louisiana State University. Throughout her career, Karen has written and produced dozens of documentaries and videos for educational, commercial, corporate, and governmental clients and appeared in many TV and video productions as a professional host.

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Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc is a travel host and writer with a popular travel show, The Design Tourist, and a companion lifestyle blog. As a widely published travel journalist and content creator, Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association. She also serves as the Design and Travel editor of the national lifestyle magazine, LaPalme. Karen believes that every destination has a story to tell through its local art, architecture, culture, and craft. This immersive creative exploration begins with authentic accommodations where the narrative of place unfolds through art, accessories, accouterments, furnishings, fixtures, and food. 

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