The legend of the Ramadan cannon

Old cannon at Saladin Citadel and modern city districts of Cairo, Egypt

Across the Arab world during Ramadan, the loud boom of a cannon sounds the end of the day’s fast and the beginning of Iftar. This age-old tradition is marked in numerous Muslim countries, from the UAE to Egypt, in an effort to keep history alive.

There are many versions of how the tradition of the cannon came to be. Legend has it that in 859 (Hijra) or 1455 (Gregorian), the ruler of the time, Khoush Qadam, was gifted a German-made cannon. He wanted to test it one evening and triggered it at sunset on the first day of Ramadan, apparently by accident.

When the people heard the sound they thought that it was a sign that they should end their fast, much to their delight. However, when the cannon was not sounded over the next few days, they urged the sultan to continue the practice. It was his wife, Hajja Fatma, who convinced Khoush Qadam to fire the cannon every day during Ramadan, thus setting a precedent. This is why the cannon is fondly referred to as the Hajja Fatma.

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Another version says that in 287 Hijri or the 10th century, the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt instructed that a cannon be placed at the highest point in the city on the Citadel and fired at sunset during Ramadan. The effect was the same; those who heard it used it as a sign to end the day’s fast. 

The idea then spread across the Middle East to Jerusalem, Damascus and Baghdad in the late 19th century.

In the UAE, the practice began in Sharjah in the 1800s under the rule of Sheikh Sultan Bin Saqr (1803 - 1866), before being introduced in Dubai in the 1900s under the rule of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum (1912-1958).

Several locations in Dubai are earmarked for the cannon blasts – two in Deira, one in Karama and one in Safa Park. A team of 20 officers handle each of the six British-made cannons, as a crowd gathers to cheer them on.

In Saudi Arabia, the holy city of Mecca is the only  place where this tradition continues.  A cannon perched on a high peak called Jabal Al-Madafea, or Mountain of the Cannon, alerts the faithful to the start and end of the fast.

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