Friday, 29 July 2016

13 November 1880 - 'The Weddings of the World - a Wedding in Egypt'

I'm not sure of the relevance of this (very lovely) illustration, as the wedding described below is obviously not Christian, Coptic or otherwise. 

The beauty and charms of the women of ancient Egypt are gravely recorded in history and sung in poetry, and modern travellers have been as earnest and elegant in admiring their descendants. Their accomplishments were music, dancing and singing. They had an extravagant love of jewellery. They had their picnic parties, they paid house-to-house visits, they frequented the fashionable drives and promenades in their handsome chariots, and they carried the arts of dress and the toilette to an extreme never since exceeded. They were fond of gardening, practised gymnastic exercises, played games with balls, embroidered and did various kinds of work with their bronze needles. There is no reason for believing that they did not make excellent wives and mothers.

The social and legal rights of women were first recognised in ancient Egypt. Hermes, the great founder of its government and laws, decreed that a man should have but one wife. Diodorus, who wrote his history of Egypt about forty-four years before the birth of Christ, says that anciently the marriage contract was regarded amongst the Egyptians as one of grave importance, in which the husband pledged himself to yield implicit obedience to the wife, and she, as solemnly, promised to place his claims upon her love and fidelity before all other claims, including those of her children, should their union be productive of a family. It is most probable that the occasion of ratifying such a contract was, even in the earliest times, accompanied by some festive, religious, or legal ceremonies, but if so, we have nothing to show what they were. The barbarous conquerors who destroyed the written records of old Egypt have left us nothing belonging to those early times but monumental hieroglyphics. I can only tell you that the bride wore a wedding ring, that in their matrimonial unions ties of consanguinity were disregarded, and that marriages between relatives were frequent and common.

How superstition and polygamy dishonoured and degraded the female sex in Egypt is another and a later, and yet a very ancient, story. What the result was is a lesson too sad to be dwelt upon - the pages of Diodorus which chronicle it seem to be written in blood and tears - and that influence, alas! Is still in existence.

Passing along the downward course of Egyptian history, we come to the Egypt of a hundred years ago, and enter, by virtue of our invisibility, a great place of public assembly for women - the bath - into which, while they are present, it is death by the law for a man to introduce.

We are in the midst of a noisy crowd of women, old and young, laughing and chattering and talking of their domestic or private affairs, all proudly displaying their fine clothes and jewellery. A great number of active little children are romping and playing with the salve girls in their midst. The mistress of the ceremonies is settling a dispute between some rival beauties; the attendants, accustomed to the noise and confusion, run here and there to take this or fetch that, render assistance in one place or supply refreshments in another. The humid air is heavy with perfume, and here and there the smoke of burning incense ascends.

Some are richly attired in muslins and silks interwoven with threads of gold, rich European brocade, and the flowered stuffs of Aleppo, with trimmings of choice furs, &c, and with head-dresses heavy with pearls, jewels, flowers and small golden coins. Others are stripped  for the water and putting on their bathing wrappers, or having their long jet-black hair carefully braided into numerous small, or a few large, plaits, or the edges of their eye-lids blackened, or their finger nails newly stained with henne. A few are preparing to depart, enveloping themselves from head to foot in capacious mantles of white linen or black taffety, leaving nothing visible but their eyes.

Yonder on the divan, partaking of the chibouk or cup of coffee, are a pair of portly matrons engaged in very earnest conversation, which they interlard with the most extravagant flattery. They have been sighing to see each other ever since they last parted. They have been pining to death  for the honour of receiving each other's visit. The greatest possible happiness to them is that of their frequent meeting.

When each matron kisses and bids the other adieu before gathering together her own and going home, each riding astride, a shapeless mass of drapery upon a magnificently caparisoned donkey, and each with the chief officer of the harem riding before her on horseback, there has been done a deed of mighty note - the first step for a marriage between Fatima, aged seventeen, to a young man she has never seen and one who has never seen her, Seid Abdalkadan, the youngest son of Seid Mustafa, has been arranged.

Soon after the male relatives of both families have a formal meeting, at which each side appoints a representative to discuss preliminaries and draw up the contract of betrothal, which binds the bridegroom to pay a given sum as a dowry and settle upon the bride a regular payment as bath money, a kind of wedding by proxy. The iman, or priest, being present, asks one proxy if he is willing to take the fair Fatima for a wife and pay down the sum agreed upon by way of portion. If the reply is an affirmative, a similar question is put to the other proxy, whose consent being received, a purse containing, or supposed to contain, the bride's dowry is given to her father by the bridegroom's father. Then, the contract being duly signed, sealed and witnessed, the ceremony is concluded by the iman's reading some verses from the Koran.

The next step is that of taking this legally confirmed contract to the cadi, who grants his licence  for the wedding in the form following:-

"Our Lord and Legal Judge, Seid Husseyn, grants permission to Fatima, the daughter of Hadge Abdalkadan, dwelling in, &c., she having been legally betrothed, to marry Seid Abdalkadan, youngest son of Seid Mustafa, granting always that there is no lawful impediment to their union."

To this is appended the date with, at the top, the seal of the cadi.

The father of the bride usually adds to the bridegroom's dowry a second sum of money, which, with the first, is expended in purchasing the young lady's bridal apparel and jewels.

Then, indeed, the entire harem breaks into a state of wild confusion. The preparations employ every hour and every thought amongst its inmates. Every relative, friend, and acquaintance receives the good news, and from each a wedding gift is expected. Curiosity is on tiptoe to know in what forms and numbers these presents will arrive. During the several days preceding the nuptials the betrothed maiden is carried with great pomp to the bath, attended by all her female relatives, her sisters, and her cousins, and her aunts. Everybody is anxious to see, and all who know her are anxious to present their congratulations.  It is the delight of everybody to please and amuse her. They describe the handsome looks of the husband to be, tell her of his goodness and his wealth, for she, poor thing! Knows nothing about him. They dress her up in male attire, by way of fun, making her first a janissary, then a mameluke, and then some other male character, until the harem rings with their mirth, and laughter. They sing songs to her, songs special to the occasion; and so the time flits rapidly away.

The day before the wedding is devoted exclusively to the mysteries of the toilet, and in the evening a rich supper is sent from the house of the bridegroom, where he is being entertained at a special feast.

At sunset on the wedding day there comes a grand procession from the bridegroom's harem led by his female relatives, by whom the bride is torn, as it were, from the arms of her weeping mother, and conducted in triumph to her new home. The return procession is led by dancers on stilts, who carry ornamental balancing poles; then come the bearers of great feather fans, which bend and wave gracefully in the air; some sprinkle scented waters on the path; conjurers and mountebanks perform feats of skill, strength, and agility as they pass; troops of alme, or dancing girls, follow, their lithe bodies languidly swaying in slow movements, which keep time to their music and singing. Then the matrons of the united families appear in their richest attire gravely walking, and after the, concealed under a magnificent canopy upheld by four slaves, comes the bride, sustained by her mothers and sisters, and entirely covered with a veil embroidered with gold, pearls and diamonds.

After them march a long file of torch bearers, followed by slaves carrying the dowry and bridal gifts, clothes, furniture, jewels, &c., &c., all separated and spread out to make as fine and as long a display as possible. This being the grandest and most interesting feature of the bridal procession, and that concerning which the most curiosity is displayed, much care is taken in exhibiting the various articles to the greatest advantage, and by the greatest possible number of bearers. The procession advances slowly and by the most circuitous and longest route, pausing here and there to give every opportunity to the crowds of sightseers, while the alme sing songs in praise of the bride and bridegroom. Guns are fired at intervals, and every now and then is heard that peculiarly sharp, shrill warbling cry of female exultation peculiar to the East, and called ziraleet.

At last the pompous bridal procession reaches the bridegroom's house, and the exulting women take possession of the harem to presently witness the festivities in which they have otherwise no part, those of the bridegroom and his friends.

At these the dancing girls again appear, and, throwing off their veils, dance to the sounds of tabours, cymbals, and castinets. Nuptial songs are sung, and choruses are chanted which extol the allurements of the bride. She is more beautiful than the moon of a summer night, more lovely than the rose, sweeter than the jasmine. How fortune and happy must be the bridegroom who is united to so charming a creature! Between the verses "shrill ecstasies of joy," the ziraleet rings out, and is heard to a great distance.

During the evening the bride assumes her male masquerading disguises, and passes before the bridegroom, the matrons display their wealth and finery by frequent changes of dress, and the younger part of the assembly amuse themselves with sprightly gambols and games.

When, at a late hour, the guests are about to depart, the bridegroom appears in a fresh and costly dress, and is taken in procession, with music and loud shouts of exultation, to the outer door of the harem, where the women receive him and conduct him in procession to meet the bride, who is in her rich wedding dress and veiled in red gauze. When she appears at the top of the stairs he pauses at the bottom, and her attendants begin a dispute with those of her husband as to which party shall first advance to meet the other. A compromise is arranged; she descends, he ascends, and they meet in the middle of the stairs. There he receives her hand and they ascend together, and soon after the bridal veil is removed, and  for the first time Seid Abdalkadan looks upon the face of Fatima his bride, in the midst of a wild outburst of music and joyous voices.

The feasting usually continues during the remainder of the night, and is resumed on the following day, lasting sometimes the entire week.

Such is a wedding as performed in Egypt. How different from the pious and beautiful ceremony in use in our own beloved country!

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