CAIRO — For over a thousand years, Cairo’s oldest mosques kept their doors open — through the Black Death of the 14th century, the devastating cholera epidemics of the 19th century and the Spanish flu in the winter of 1918 that claimed 140,000 Egyptian lives.
Then the coronavirus hit.
On the first day of the lockdown at Al Azhar, a famed center of scholarship that opened in A.D. 972, tears flowed down the cheeks of the muezzin, Sheikh Mohamed Rashad Zaghloul, as he made the call to prayer in an empty hall.
“It was hard on my heart,” he said after midday prayers one day last week at the mosque, where a stray cat meandered between the ancient pillars. “When I call people, nobody can come. It feels like God is refusing us.”
The shuttered ancient mosques are a harbinger of another event that will be jarringly altered by the pandemic. Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, begins at the end of this week and promises this year to be the strangest experienced by any Cairene, not to mention 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide.
A sacred period that is rooted in gathering — at mosques, homes and on the streets — will be replaced with a month of solitary prayer, stifled celebrations and gnawing anxiety over the silent march of a virus that has closed a city that never, ordinarily, sleeps.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said Dr. Islam Hussein, an Egyptian virologist based in the United States who runs a YouTube channel that educates Egyptians about Covid-19. “People are attached to the rituals. It’s going to hurt.”
Traditionally, Ramadan imposes a gentler rhythm on the usual hurly-burly of Cairo, a loud and boisterous megalopolis. At night, sidewalk cafes and high-end hotels teem with patrons who socialize into the wee hours. Then comes suhoor, the predawn meal before another day of fasting.
Families visit one another, or seriously ill relatives. Even lax Muslims observe the fast, and many abstain from alcohol.
This year, residents will be locked down at home under a nightly curfew that starts at 8 o’clock. Some wealthier Cairenes have fled to beach resorts. The great ancient sites, like the pyramids, are closed, and police officers roam scenic sites, like the bridges on the Nile, to discourage people from lingering.
“This Ramadan is going to be flavorless,” said Abdul Rehman, 19, at the deserted lantern store he tends in Khan el Khalili, the city’s most famous bazaar.
First the tourists vanished, after the closing of the Cairo airport. Now Ramadan had been canceled, at least commercially speaking.
“I just sit here and wait,” Mr. Rehman said glumly, as two women, veiled and wearing face masks, skirted past him down an empty alleyway.
At the nearby Zuwayla Gate, where criminals were once hanged, traders sold the giant colorful lanterns that are a mark of Ramadan in Cairo. Business had halved, several sellers reported. Like most of his customers, Ahmad Saeed, a shop owner, refused to wear a mask. “If God wants us to die, so it will be,” he said.
So far, the virus has taken a relatively modest toll on Egypt, with 3,333 confirmed cases and 250 reported deaths in a country of 100 million people. Turkey, which has 82 million inhabitants, has 91,000 cases. But the curve is accelerating, raising fears that the worst is yet to come.
The outbreak is adding to Egypt’s economic despair.
About one-third of Egyptians live in poverty, according to government figures, including five million casual laborers who lost their income to the virus. A $31 monthly payment offered by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is unlikely to plug the gap.
And now, adding to their woes, giant charity meals that are traditionally offered to the poor throughout Ramadan — known as Banquets of the Merciful — have been canceled.
In the working-class neighborhood of Ard el Lewa, Ali Abdelatif, a cafe owner, stood amid the stacked chairs and dust-smeared floor of his deserted business. The virus forced him to lay off his 10 employees, he said, and to call off the nightly charity meals he usually offers, with other local businessmen, on a dusty side street.
Still, he counted his blessings: A mile away, the authorities had quarantined an entire neighborhood to stem the spread of the virus. And Mr. Abdelatif had come up with an alternative plan to feed the poor: boxes of rice, vegetables and meat that he intends to deliver directly to homes.
Down the centuries, Egyptians tried to survive plagues by flocking to mosques rather than shunning them.
The magnificent Sultan Hassan mosque was built at the height of the Black Death in the 14th century. During later plagues, worshipers gathered to pray for deliverance, said Amina Elbendary, a professor of Arab and Islamic civilizations at the American University in Cairo. Such prayers stopped only after the majority of congregants had died.
Still, the restrictions on worship today cut deep.
At the gates of Syeda Zainab, a glittering shrine in the east of the city, Mohsen Hussein offered his prayers at a police barricade, facing a shuttered door. “As long as I stand here, I feel close to the Syeda,” said Mr. Hussein, a carpenter, referring to the shrine’s saint. “It’s very painful to have a barrier with someone you love.”
One consolation in this gloomy Ramadan season in Egypt is TV. Despite the nightly curfew, production has accelerated in recent weeks of the Ramadan television serials that Egypt is famous for — soap operas, thrillers, rustic dramas and even science fiction shows that air every night during the holy month.
At least 25 shows are expected to air this year, providing some relief to families confined to their homes after iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast. Some TV companies, however, faced criticism in recent weeks for filming at night while mosques and churches were closed.
Mr. el-Sisi’s willingness to make an exception stemmed not only from his desire to keep people entertained in the long Ramadan nights. In recent years his intelligence forces have aggressively vetted, and even funded, many of the biggest shows, to ensure they follow “pro-Egypt” plotlines.
History teaches that sensitive handling of disease outbreaks is wise. A bungled response to the Spanish flu outbreak contributed to a wave of popular unrest that led to Egyptians rebelling against their British colonial rulers a year later, said Christopher S. Rose, a scholar at the University of Texas, Austin.
Mr. el-Sisi has displayed a typically heavy-handed touch in his fight against the coronavirus, with arrests of Egyptians accused of spreading rumors and the detention of a doctor who complained about a lack of protective equipment at his hospital.
The lockdown itself seems like just an extension of Mr. el-Sisi’s well-established suspicion of public gatherings. To Egypt’s president, even a small public protest is an unacceptable affront to his authority. In the coming weeks, through an unusual Ramadan, he will want to ensure that the coronavirus doesn’t change that.
Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.