Candles – source of light and social significance

By Youssef Kanjou and Abdul Baset Kannawi
Candles are considered one of the oldest methods of lighting in the history of civilisations, and their use was not limited to illumination or obtaining light alone. Over time, religious and social relationships developed between candles and people, which are reflected in many practices, rites and habits.
With the mastery of fire around 500,000 years ago, people living at that time were able to illuminate the darkness of the night and caves. This light could also be transported using wood shavings or torches. Humans also had primitive lamps from around 40,000 years ago. The archaeologists excavated hollowed-out stone objects with traces of fire. In these stone vessels, people burned animal body fat around a plant wick, which provided a longer-lasting light than burning wood.
Perhaps the first pictorial evidence of lanterns comes from the ancient Egyptians: they dipped plant material in animal fat and used it for lighting. This is shown in a wall painting in a pharaonic tomb, on which a boat procession with a small candle or lantern can be seen. It is part of a pharaonic burial rite from the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep (2575-2130 BC).
The early Greeks used candles to honour the birth of the goddess Artemis, and the Romans began making candles around 500 BC. Although they mainly used oil lamps made of clay and metal as the primary source of light in Italy and other parts of the Roman Empire, candles were continually used in rituals as offerings to deities such as Saturn.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire, trade in the areas under Roman rule also came to an end. As a result, there was a shortage of olive oil, which had previously been the predominant fuel for lamps throughout Europe. Therefore, candles were now widely used. However, due to the availability of olive oil, the use of candles was relatively unknown in North Africa and the Middle East.

Kerzenhalter aus der Mamluken-Zeit (9. Jh.), entdeckt in der Zitadelle von Aleppo. Foto: tünews INTERNATIONAL / Youssef Kanjou.

Candles in central Europe were initially made from animal fat obtained from cattle and sheep. Due to the unpleasant odour produced during burning, official bans were imposed on this production in many European cities. Beeswax was known for its high quality in candle making and its pleasant odours, but its use was restricted by its high cost. Wax candles were therefore only used by the wealthy, in churches and on royal occasions.
In the Muslim world, the Umayyads began using candles to light the meeting rooms of the caliphs and wealthy social classes as well as large mosques in the 7th century, although the cost was twice as high as lighting with clay or metal lamps. Candles were also used on certain occasions, for example in the processions of the caliphs, such as at the time of the Umayyad caliphs Yazid ibn Abd al-Malik and Walid ibn Abd al-Malik in Damascus. Candles were also used at the weddings of the caliphs to express good wishes for the marriage. Many scented candles mixed with ambergris and camphor appeared here and later became known as ambergris candles. The enthusiasm for the use of candles reached a peak when the Fatimid caliph ruling North Africa ordered the streets, alleys and paths to be lit with candles at night. In Cairo, there was a separate neighbourhood called “Al-Shama’een”, which was a place for selling and trading candles. In Islam itself, there are no specific religious rituals or meanings concerning candles. Therefore, some Muslims may use candles more for aesthetic or practical purposes, such as for odour, decoration or romantic occasions.
The year 1879 was a disaster for the candle industry, as the light bulb was invented that year. This put an end to candles being the sole means of lighting interiors and they became decorative in many shapes, sizes, colours and even scents.
Oil lamps are still used in the Byzantine rites of the Orthodox Church, but candles always play a significant role in celebrations and events, whether official or private. From weekly church services to major events such as Easter, Christmas, funerals, engagements and weddings, they continue to symbolise prayer and the light of God.
In the wars in Syria and Ukraine, people are once again turning to candles as an inexpensive source of light because of the destroyed electricity grids. Perhaps people should start using candles again, not only because of the lack of electricity in wars, but also to save energy and thus protect the environment?


Kerzen gibt es auf der ganzen Welt schon seit Jahrhunderten. Foto: tünews INTERNATIONAL / Linda Kreuzer.







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