Skip to content

S. H. LEEDER’S ACCOUNT OF THE COPTIC WEDDING CEREMONY AND CELEBRATIONS IN EARLY 20TH CENTURY

August 16, 2019

EF.PNG

One of the most gorgeous Coptic weddings of recent years. Which united the prominent families of Wissa and Fanous. The photograph shows the magnificent Egyptian pavilion used on ceremonial occasions, with its myriad lights. The wedding took place at Assiout. (The content of the caption are those of Leeder.)

The English writer, S. H. Leeder, describes the Coptic wedding in his book, Modern Sons of the Pharaohs.[1] I think it is a great work of ethnological description of the Coptic wedding ceremonies in the first quarter of the 20th century. He also publishes a beautiful photograph of one such Coptic wedding, the wedding of Esther Akhnoukh and Fahmy Bey Wissa, which is described below. I publish the photograph above.

Below, I publish Leeder’s description as it is. I only add headings and summary (in italics) of the three-day ceremonies.

Divider

Days of celebration of marriage

WEDDINGS are, as a rule, celebrated on the night of Saturday and Sunday. They are never celebrated during Lent or any of the fasts kept by the Coptic Church, except under very exceptional circumstances. Although very few people now keep the long fasts, these still preclude marriage for more than one-third of the year.

It is through the weekly fasts, too, that Sunday has been chosen for marriage, Wednesdays and Fridays being regular fast-days; and as three days are necessary for the proper solemnisation, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday alone are possible. As marriage is one of the seven Holy Sacraments, it is thought doubly fitting to choose the Holy Day. Tuesday is made impossible for any wedding ceremony by universal superstition as to ill luck.

Saturday, first day of the celebration of marriage: the Bride’s Night

The public bath. The Bride’s night (Henna night) at her parents’s house. Adornment of the bride. Decoration of the house. Reception. Dinner.The bridegroom’s deputation with bouquet and a wax candle that must be as long as the bride is tall.

The first night is called the bride’s night, and is celebrated at her parents’ house; it is sometimes spoken of as the night of henna, because before she goes to bed the bride applies henna to the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet, so that the red stain it leaves may be fresh the next day. In some way this is regarded as a sign of her virginity.

In the course of that day the bride, with her girlfriends and her female relatives, have been to one of the public baths, which has been specially reserved for the party; here a great frolic is held, and the prettiest compliments are paid the girl by the older women, to the special gratification of the bride’s mother.

At night she is adorned with all the splendour possible—girls of even moderate wealth will wear a valuable diamond tiara on such an occasion—and she holds a reception, to which all relatives and friends are bidden. All the guests stay to dinner, and spend a great part of the night listening to music and singing.

The house is gorgeously decorated with flowers and bunting, and at night the illuminations are brilliant, many sparkling lustre chandeliers being hired for the occasion. The women occupy the upper stories, the ground floor being reserved for the men. In most cases one of the beautiful pavilions, elaborately decorated in applique designs of many colours, and hung with countless lustre chandeliers for the candles, is erected in the courtyard or garden, or even in the street, for the use of the men, the whole house then being left for the women.

The food is prepared by special cooks engaged for the occasion. I have already described an Eastern feast, as it is served on the round metal trays placed on stools, when the guests eat with their fingers. Such Oriental feasts are often made on great ceremonial occasions, even when the hosts ordinarily eat in the French way. When a priest is present, as on this occasion, he takes precedence over all other people, whatever may be their rank. He begins by saying grace, then, taking a loaf, he blesses, then breaks it, and gives a small piece to each person present.

The groom does not put in an appearance at the bride’s house on this night, but he sends a small deputation of his nearest relatives, and along with them a bouquet, and a wax candle that must be as long as the bride is tall. This candle remains lighted in her chamber during the whole night, and is also regarded as a symbol of the bride’s virginity.

Sunday, second day of the celebration of marriage: the Bridegroom’s Night

Confession of both bride and bridegroom. Procession of the bridegroom in the bridegroom’s night at his parent’s house. Wedding procession of the bride to her future house. The killing a calf or a sheep at the bride’s feet, and the bride step over the flown blood. The sprinkling and rose leaves, to avert the effects of “the envious eye.” The arrival of the priest, acolytes and cantors. The “crowning” ceremony. The exhortation to the newly-wed. Dinner and rejoicing. The newly-wed retire to their chamber while the rejoicing continues.

On the morning of Sunday, the bride and the bridegroom should, after confession, have attended the Mass, afterwards spending the time in quiet reflection, but this is only done by the pious.

In the afternoon—called the bridegroom’s night—the shebeen, or best man, accompanied by two or three of the nearest relatives of the groom, goes to fetch the bride. The shebeen always pays for the carriages hired for this procession, and he tips the servants. The bride’s father presents him with a gold or silver cigarette case; which accounts for the fact that every man of any position in Egypt seems to possess a valuable article of this sort; sometimes this is put down by travellers to an inordinate love of display.

The bride now leaves the home of her parents, and goes in state to the house prepared by the bridegroom, preceded by a band of musicians. Some years since these processions only moved at night, and they were very effective. First came the bearers of the great torches; then the band, followed by men each carrying a candle appearing out of the centre of a bouquet; then pages, walking backwards so as to face the bride, carrying incense burners and perfume bottles, with which they sprinkled the onlookers; then the bride, leaning on the arm of the best man, followed by the ladies, with family servants in the rear.

Such wedding processions may still sometimes be seen, but now they are generally Moslem; and of course the bride is then hidden, either in a closed carriage, or in a palanquin, sometimes fixed, as I have often seen it in the country, on the back of a camel.

It is usual with the Copts of to-day, in the cities, for the bride and the ladies to be conveyed to the bridegroom’s house in closed carriages, escorted only by the best man and their few male relations.

On arriving at the house, the old custom is, however, still observed of killing a calf or a sheep at the bride’s feet in such a way that its blood shall flow on the threshold over which she must step. The flesh is given to the poor. The bride is carried or helped up to the ladies’ quarters by the best man.

As the procession leaves the bride’s maiden home, and as it enters the groom’s house, it is sprinkled with salt, and sometimes with rose leaves, to avert the effects of “the envious eye.”

Priests and acolytes and cantors, and the whole host of ecclesiastics, now arrive at the house to prepare for the religious ceremony.

After resting a little and partaking of slight refreshment, the wedding or “crowning” ceremony is begun. It is general for it to take place in the house; though there is no rule against its being celebrated in the church.

A table has been placed in the middle of one of the largest halls in the house, and on this a copy of the Holy Gospel is placed, in its sealed silver case, surrounded six silver crosses, to each of which three wax can are fixed. This symbol of the Holy Trinity is used many of the Coptic services. A golden cross and golden wedding ring are also placed upon the table.

Two arm-chairs are placed in front of the table the use of the couple to be married.

In another room the groom is robed in a rich embroidered cope, and then conducted in a procession, preceded by the choir, to the hall. He takes the left-hand chair—as one would expect, seeing that in the West he would take the right-hand—for East and West are always opposite.

The clergy and choir then go to bring the bride, who is dressed in white, adorned with orange blossoms, her face being covered with a thin veil. She wears diamond and gold ornaments. The deacons carry candles and bells, and the cantors clash the cymbals, all singing, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord,” and, “O King of Peace, give us Thy peace.”

In the old days the robing of both the man and the woman was part of the service, the priest blessing the garments and vesting the bride and the bridegroom at the table.

The priest begins the service by saying three times, “We are assembled to solemnise the union of N. and M.,” repeating after each announcement the Lord’s Prayer, in which all present should join inaudibly.

The priest then says the Thanksgiving, and offers incense. Then several chapters from the Old and New Testament are read, referring to marriage. There are three beautiful Prayers of Betrothal, and a Thanks-giving for the Betrothal.

There is a prayer over the oil with which the couple are anointed, and then comes the Rite of Coronation. Two crowns of gold are placed upon the foreheads of the pair, and they are made to exchange rings and to join hands. Their heads are drawn close together and are both covered with a single embroidered sash. The couple are also bound together with a ribbon, as a symbol of the indissoluble character of marriage, and that they are no longer two, but one.

At the close of the service the priest lays the cross upon their heads as he pronounces the benediction. The crowns, as well as the wedding robes and the sash, are the property of the church.

In the exhortation at the end of the service (which takes three hours for its proper celebration), the priest, first addressing the groom, says, “I deliver to you your bride N., who is now your wife. You have now more authority over her than her parents. You must always treat her with love and kindness, and never neglect any of her wants,” and so on.

Turning to the bride he says to her, “You have heard, according to the Scriptures, that your husband is your head, as Christ is the head of the Church. That means that you must obey and respect him, as Sarah obeyed Abraham and always addressed him as ‘my master.’ You must keep his house well, and make his home always cheerful,” and so on.

Finally, speaking to both, he says, “If you obey what you have heard, God will bless you as He blessed Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca.”

The service is concluded by the singing of hymns in Coptic and Arabic, and the women, who are never able to contain themselves, accompany the hymns by their peculiar zagreet, the sort of yodelling cry they use to express either joy or sorrow as the occasion may demand.

After the ceremony the bride goes to the hareem, and the bridegroom to the men’s apartments, to take dinner and to receive the congratulations of friends, amidst great rejoicing. About an hour before midnight the bride and bridegroom retire, but the music goes on during the greater part of the night.

Monday, third day of the celebration of marriage

Relatives gather at the newly-wed house. Gifts and contributions to wedding expenses.

On Monday the nearest relatives of both sides spend the day at the groom’s house. The bride waits on them herself, and every guest presents her with a gift according to means. These gifts may be a diamond or a gold ornament, or a sum of money, £1 to £10; every one receiving in return a handkerchief embroidered by the bride.

On the occasion of a wedding it is the custom of all intimate friends to help by contributing something towards the coming fête—one will send a sheep, another fowls, others rice, sugar, coffee, candles, and so on.

The recipient generally makes a list of all the things received, and on a similar occasion returns something of the same value if he be of the same means, or of more or less value, as he is a richer or poorer man.

In spite of this custom, however, the temptation to the Egyptian seems irresistible to spend far too much on display, and it is no uncommon thing for families to cripple their resources in this way. I have been to many weddings, on the festivities of which sums ranging from £1000 to £10,000 have been spent, and in nearly every case it was out of proportion to the means of the families concerned.

Divorce and remarriage

Divorce is not very common amongst the Copts. Remarriage is not greatly favoured, and it may only take place by the innocent party applying to the Patriarch for permission. No person can be crowned in marriage a second time.

An account of the wedding of Miss Esther Fanous and Mr Wissa in Assyut, 1913[2]

One of the most gorgeous weddings of recent years, unequalled in Oriental magnificence, it is said, since the spacious days of Ismail, took place at Assiout, between two of my acquaintances, shortly after I had left Egypt after my last visit, in 1913. Miss Esther Fanous, the bride, had read to me some of her charming poems, written in English, and I had often had the pleasure of hearing her speak of her deep joy in the beauties of her beloved country, and of its magnificent, time-old history; and I had also seen her, type of the new Egyptian womanhood, using her gifts to uplift the poor fellaheen by her eloquent pleading in the name of the Cross. I had also met Mr. Wissa, the bridegroom, a graduate of Cambridge, and a member of one of the great Coptic families of Upper Egypt.

I give a short account of this wedding, for which I am indebted to a Coptic friend who was present, because it illustrates several things to which reference has been made, and especially shows how the native customs assert themselves on such occasions, in spite of the use that is made of some of the Western modes of life.

“Nothing had been spared to make the ceremony the complete success it proved to be. Eastern beauty and Western science blended harmoniously in the gorgeous marquee (suvan) with the myriads of ancient oil lamps and the gorgeous modern electric chandeliers. In this pavilion no fewer than 8000 guests were entertained on one night. Khedivial banners and a magnificent triumphal arch adorned the streets leading to the bridegroom’s house. The preparations are said to have cost £20,000.

“The entertainment lasted for three days continuously, and the guests, who came from all over the country, included native Pashas, Beys, Omdehs, sheikhs, and other notables, besides European Government officials and a host of minor folk.

“On the first day eight hundred village notables were entertained to lunch and dinner, à la Turque, by the parents of the bride; and in the evening, Abdulhalim Effendi Nahas, the renowned singer, and Sami Effendi Shawas, the violinist, displayed their talents to the delight of a select audience, being accompanied on the mandolin (kanoun) by Mohammed Effendi Omar, most of the pieces being rapturously and repeatedly encored.

“On another day the guests from Cairo and Alexandria, and many from Assiout, including native and foreign officials, distinguished residents and their families, were entertained to lunch at the Wissa mansion, and in the evening they attended a special reception given by the bride’s mother, Mme. Akhnoukh Fanous, whose house was beautifully decorated with flowers and coloured lights. At 8 p.m. the guests began to arrive, being greeted by the band of the Wissa school with Arabic and European airs; and at nine o’clock Fethy Pasha, the Mudir of Assiout, led the way to supper. After this, the toasts and speech-making ended, the male guests proceeded to the Wissa mansion to hear Arabic songs by Mohammed Effendi el Saba, accompanied by Mohammed Effendi Omar’s orchestra.

“Another day was devoted to the entertainment of the native ladies, who lunched with the bride’s family, and took part in the procession to the bridegroom’s house, the Wissas meantime entertaining hundreds of native villagers, Moslem and Christian, to a Turkish luncheon.

“On the afternoon of each of the three days, splendid displays of horsemanship were given in front of the bride’s house by members of leading local families on richly caparisoned steeds, each performance ending with a procession round the house, the horsemen beating drums and shouting such phrases as, ‘Amar ya bib Fanous!’— ‘May the house of Fanous flourish for ever!’

“An interesting incident took place when the leading horseman, noting Dr. Fanous (who is an invalid) on the balcony, rode his horse up the great flight of steps to salute him, the doctor rising to his feet to grasp the hand of the cavalier, who then rode down again, amid the frenzied shouts and cheers of the vast crowd below.

“At 8 p.m. on the evening of the wedding itself, the procession, preceded by the band and torch-bearers, and a contingent of mounted police, and composed of over a hundred carriages, proceeded to the large marquee. Here it was met by Coptic choristers, chanting a hymn of welcome, who accompanied the bride and her party to the dais, where the wedding ceremony was performed by the Coptic bishops and clergy. The officiating clergy included Orthodox and Protestant representatives, the Patriarch having delegated two bishops to represent him, writing at the same time his great regret that age and infirmity prevented his personal attendance. There were also present the Bishops of Assiout, Khartoum, and Kena, the latter being accompanied by the full choir of his church.

“The five prelates, and the Reverend Mouawad Hanna, united the bridal pair with full Orthodox and Protestant rites, according to the desire of the Patriarch, the Coptic Orthodox and Protestant choirs chanting sacred verses and selected psalms. Both bride and bridegroom belong to the Protestant Church, Dr. Akhnoukh Fanous being President of the Church Council, the Megliss el Milli.

“After the ceremony, which lasted an hour, Khalil Moutran, the native poet, and others, recited beautiful epithalamia in prose and verse.

“At 11 p.m. a sumptuous supper was first served to three hundred guests, and afterwards to several thousands of the poorer people, the feasting going on until 2 a.m. The Moslem and Christian ladies were privately entertained meantime in the house. The festivities were not over until 5 a.m., when they ended in singing and dancing.”

________________________________

[1] S. H. Leeder, Modern Sons of the Pharaohs (London and New York Hodder and Stoughton, 1918), Coptic Wedding, Chapter VIII: pp. 112-122.

[2] This wedding of Esther Akhnoukh to Bey Wissa (an Oxford graduate) took place on 24 July 1913 in Assyut, Upper Egypt, when they were 17 and 29 years old, respectively. The couple had engaged a year earlier, in 1912. See: Hanna F. Wissa, Assiout, the Saga of an Egyptian Family, Revised Edition (2000).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: