Family keeps up Jerusalem's cannon ritual for 120 years

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Rajai Sanduqa
Image caption,
Rajai Sanduqa remembers watching his grandfather firing the same cannon

The ancient tradition of firing cannons to signify the end of the daily fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan is thought to have taken place in the Arab world for hundreds of years.

It is believed to have started in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, but long ago the practice was also adopted just outside the Old City of Jerusalem.

Wherever cannons are used, Muslims do not break their dawn until dusk fast until they hear its booming sound. The call to prayer follows and then it is time for the iftar meal.

In Jerusalem, the responsibility of sounding the cannon has fallen upon the same family for the last 120 years. The Sanduqas have proudly handed down the tradition from father to son.

Rajai Sanduqa, an actor and puppeteer, took over the task in 1992. He fires a rusty 1918 cannon from the top of a Muslim cemetery close to a bustling shopping street in East Jerusalem which overlooks the walls of the Old City.

"Two months before Ramadan, people come up to me and ask me to check that my timings will be correct as they want to break their fasts as soon as they can," he says.

"I know that in Jerusalem no Muslim eats before they hear the cannon and the mosques don't start their prayers until they hear the sound. I feel so proud doing this."

However he recalls one occasion when his timing did not go to plan.

"One year, I made a terrible mistake and fired the cannon one minute early," he says. "The next day everyone started shouting at me and wanted to hit me and I realised how important my role was in and around the city."

Explosives training

Tensions in East Jerusalem, which was occupied by Israel in 1967, mean that the Israeli army puts restrictions on the use of the cannon.

Image caption,
The Ramadan cannon is ignited just before the call to prayer starts

Previously it was heard every morning and evening to signify the start and end of fasting, but now its use is limited to the evenings only and the types of explosives that are used have changed.

"Before I used to pack the cannon with gunpowder and light some cloth and then point the barrel into the air and fire 15 feet [4.5m] up," Mr Sanduqa says. "Now it's more like a big firework going off."

"We have to do what the authorities tell us or the cannon will remain silent and that cannot happen."

In recent years, he even took an explosions course required by the Israeli authorities. "We now have permission to carry on with firing the cannon," he says.

Mr Sanduqa was taught how to carry out the Ramadan ritual by his father but he also remembers watching his grandfather firing the gun. He used to receive a signal from the nearby al-Aqsa mosque that it was time to ignite the fuse.

The mosque is the third most important site within Islam, where the Prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven.

Family values

Rajai Sanduqa is a popular man amongst Jerusalem's Muslim community but at home his Ramadan duties can bring him into conflict with his wife and children. He is always late to join them in breaking their fast.

Image caption,
Rajai Sanduqa drinks water after finishing his Ramadan duty and then has a late iftar

"My wife always fights with me and says, 'Why can't we sit together as a family and enjoy our prayers and fasting?' and my children also complain that I am not at home during iftar to eat with them," he says.

"Because of my public duties I always end up eating on my own during Ramadan but that's ok".

While Mr Sanduqa stresses his commitment to the community he looks forward to the day when his son takes over his job so he can listen to the blast of the Ramadan cannon at home.

He is determined the tradition will stay in the Sanduqa family.

"It is a great responsibility and my family have been doing this for generations so I am training my son to take over from me when his time comes," he says.