First Published: 2009-08-28

Ramadan cannon keeps ritual alive in Holy City

Jerusalem cannon marks end of day's Ramadan fast in ritual that dates back to Ottoman times.


Middle East Online

By Patrick Moser - JERUSALEM

'Keeping a tradition alive'

As the sun sets over the Holy City, Rajai Sandouka lights a fuse and steps away from his rusty 1918 cannon. A blast marks the end of the day's Ramadan fast in a ritual that dates back to Ottoman times.

Sandouka, a 48-year-old actor and puppeteer, takes pride in the ceremonial job that has been in his family for about a century and which he hopes his son Nabil, now 24, will one day inherit.

"All across the Old City people are happy when they hear the blast and know it is iftar," he says, referring to the meal with which Muslims break their daily fast after the sun has set.

Within seconds of the bang, muezzins can be heard chanting the call to prayer from Jerusalem's minarets. Streets are deserted as Muslims sit down for the iftar meal, a joyous celebration that brings together family and friends.

Sandouka says he is the last to sit down for the meal -- he first has a 15-minute drive home after performing his daily Ramadan duty.

He doesn't mind. "I'm keeping a tradition alive," he says as he hurries down a dusty path towards his car.

The tradition is steeped in the sands of Egypt where, story has it, Ottoman governor Khosh Qadam accidentally fired a cannon he was given as a gift 200 years ago. The resulting bang echoed through the streets of Cairo.

Sandouka's battered cannon is positioned at the top of a Muslim cemetery nestled next to a bustling East Jerusalem shopping street, overlooking the walls of the Old City.

The ageing military hardware bears a plaque identifying it as a 75mm artillery piece manufactured by the Pennsylvania company Bethlehem Steel in 1918. Such guns were widely used for training in Britain after World War I.

Jordan donated the gun after the one dating from the Ottoman period, which Sandouka's grandfather used to fire, was retired and transferred to the museum of Islamic art at the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound, about 500 metres (yards) away.

As the setting sun bathes the Old City's limestone buildings in a reddish glow, Sandouka recalls how a man would signal from Al Aqsa Mosque when it was time to fire the gun. The signal would then be relayed to Sandouka's grandfather by another man standing atop the Old City walls.

Now, Sandouka simply consults a small card that shows the times of sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, and looks at his watch. He makes sure both of his lighters are working, while Nabil double-checks the time on his cell phone.

Eventually, he lights the fuse, sending a rocket bursting into the sky with a thunderous boom that reverberates through the narrow, winding streets.

He performs the same ceremony to mark sunrise and the start of the daytime fast.

Much to his regret, the explosives he uses now consist of tightly packed fireworks shot from a tube attached to the side of the vintage gun.

"It is no longer possible to get gunpowder," says Sandouka. The factory in the West Bank city of Ramallah where he used to buy his gunpowder shut down several years ago.

On the first day of Ramadan on August 23, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat joined Sandouka for the sunset ceremony, as his predecessor had done, bringing in a remote-controlled device to fire the charge that officials brought along.

On that day they did use an explosive charge in the gun barrel rather than the rocket tube.

While the municipality pays him the equivalent of 530 dollars (370 euros) to perform the daily Ramadan ritual, Sandouka says Israel has not made it easy for him to keep alive a tradition that has died off in other cities in the occupied Palestinian territories but is still followed in several Arabic countries.

"I've been doing this for about 30 years. All of a sudden, two years ago, they said I should take explosives training. They think of that after all these years..."

During the bitter fighting of the 2000 Palestinian uprising, known as the intifada, the Ramadan cannons fell silent across the occupied West Bank. But Jerusalem still had its daily booms, thanks to Sandouka.

"I continued to fire the gun," he says proudly before abruptly ending the conversation, eager to break the fast with his family.


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