Mohammad Arafat | 05-12-2017
“It’s my dream to see the cannon fire during Ramadan like in the old TV series Bab al-Hara,” says Omar Akeela, a Palestinian child living near Gaza City. He was referring to one of the Arab world’s most popular TV dramas, set in Syria during the years when its people yearned for independence from France. And the cannon is a relic that has sat for decades in a square in downtown Gaza City.
From 1870, during the Ottoman Empire, until 1967, when Israeli forces invaded and occupied the Gaza Strip, the cannon was used to notify Muslim worshippers that it was time to break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Its bellow marked other special occasions as well, like Eid and the New Year. Nihad el-Moghani, manager of engineering and planning for Gaza City's municipal government, says cannons were originally made by the Ottomans for this purpose in the 19th century because there were too few mosques and not every Muslim could hear the call to prayer. Thus, the sultans decided to use cannons to notify the people.
Believed to be the only one left in the Gaza Strip from the Ottoman Empire, the cannon was likely imported from Cairo or Jerusalem, since those two cities were the main sites for weapons factories from 1516 until 1917.
There are many stories about the use of cannons during Ramadan for Muslims, one of which is set during the French campaign in Egypt. Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to stop Egyptians from revolting against him, so, to show he cared about their religion, he allowed the firing of cannons during Ramadan. Archaeology researcher Hiyam el-Baitar, who also works at the Ministry of Tourism and Heritage, adds that the cannon used to perch on the highest spot in Gaza, el-Montar Hill, allowing every part of the city to hear it fire.
“But life changed,” explains el-Moghani. “There are speakers in every mosque as well as watches and clocks in every home, so the cannon is no longer needed in our daily life.”
For decades, the cannon was neglected until the formation of the Palestinian National Authority around 1995. A new city council formed and decided to repair and paint the old cannon, putting it on display in the Square of the Municipality.
Despite the enormous need for reconstruction in the Strip following three Israeli wars in six years, care for historic monuments is part of el-Moghani’s mission. He believes the cannon is an important aspect of the people’s heritage, and has urged the Gaza government to look after such historic relics and sites so the Palestinian past blends with the present.
Abdullah Shaheen, a 62-year old Gazan, says he remembers hearing the cannon from el-Montar Hill before 1967. “Years ago during Ramadan, my family and I used to sit together in a room, waiting for the cannon to fire so we could start eating breakfast. The room was silent, even the kids. Those moments were the best. I wish they could come back again."
The cannon has been here for decades and it witnessed the Ottoman era, British occupation, the defense of Palestine by the Arab armies in 1948, Egyptian control after the Nakba, Israeli occupation in 1967 and now the Hamas government. It's a part of our long and worthy history.
Posted: December 5, 2017
Mentor: Alice Rothchild