Ask any Middle Easterner to draw up a few keywords to describe Ramadan, and they'll switch back and forth certain foods like harees or Vimto, maybe bring up the lantern or ghabgas, but one thing that'll stay a consistent icon for anyone thinking of Ramadan: the Ramadan Cannon (or the Iftar Cannon).
Like a lot of staples and iconography, it's difficult for any one to surmise exactly when the cannon came into existence for the Holy Month, it's just something that existed for as long as we could remember. Well, after doing a little digging into the history of the elusive cannon, I found that its history is shrouded in speculation and wonder. Historians have only been able to estimate when the tradition began, and there certainly are a lot of legends fighting for the title of truth when it comes to the cannon's origin.
What we know for sure is that the cannon was always fired from a high point or even a cliff to ensure the sound resonates to let the citizens know that it's time to break fast. Historians debate on the exact starting dates of the cannon firing, either landing on the era of the Mamelukes (1250-1517) or, more popularly, the rule of the Ottomans right after. In fact, some compromises conceded that the Mamelukes may have used the cannon but only during their final days or during the overlap with the Ottomans.
Interesting, maybe, but not as fun as the theories behind how the cannon's tradition began! One theory states that a Mameluke ruler of Egypt wanted to test out a new cannon, and just happened to fire a ball exactly at sunset, so people thought he was thoughtfully letting them know it was time to break fast! Another urban legend dates about four centuries after but still in Egypt, during the rule of Ismail the Magnificent. Some say his soldiers were busy cleaning the cannons when they fired one by mistake at, you guessed it, the exact time of sunset. The soldiers were preparing to be punished for accidentally firing the cannon, but everyone was apparently so overjoyed with the brilliant idea, that even the ruler's own daughter issued a decree to mark the cannon as the permanent iftar-announcer. It's been a staple of Middle Eastern Ramadan ever since.
There's no doubt about the fact that the cannon is no longer the primary alarm that marks iftar every night or fasting during the sunrise, now that we can have the athan on our cell phones, but nothing quite illustrates our appreciation of heritage and culture like the firing of the cannon, day in and day out, for thirty days a year. Placed in Arad Fort and under the patronage of the Ministry of Interior, hordes of people visit this cannon every day and marvel at the depth of Arab and Muslim culture. As the Ramadan days go by, we will continue to wait for the cannon to sound its mark.
Oh and here's a quickie to add to this fun fact-filled story: Did you know that the lanterns were originally used to light the way for people heading to prayer? There you go.