A Nineteenth Century Account of Coptic Wedding Customs

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The following account was written by a British author, E.L. Butcher, during the time of the British occupation of Egypt in the late 19th c.

The ceremonies of a wedding, on the other hand, are most of them beautiful and symbolic. Unhappily, Moslem influence has affected even these, and till quite lately it was thought improper for a man even to see beforehand the girl he was going to marry, much more to have any personal acquaintance with her. The young people had, indeed, no voice in the matter. Matches were often arranged long before the intended husband and wife were of age to marry. At one time fifteen was considered a suitable age to marry a boy, and twelve for the girl. Already, however, public opinion, backed by the remonstrances of the Church, has improved in this respect, and now a man must be twenty and a girl sixteen before the Patriarch or Bishop will grant the licence without which no priest can celebrate a marriage. In 1895 the Patriarch issued an encyclical letter to all his clergy reminding them that, in accordance with the Canons of the Church, young people intending to marry should not only see but mix with each other, so as to know one another well, and calling upon the priests to ascertain whether there was mutual knowledge and consent to the marriage on the part of both man and woman before the ceremony was performed.

As soon as a marriage has been arranged, the young man sends to the maiden, by a priest, a gold or diamond ring called El Shabka (or the engagement-ring), and a day is fixed for the betrothal ceremony (or Jepeniok). On the evening of the betrothal day the groom, accompanied by a number of his relatives and friends, goes with a priest to the maiden’s house, where her relatives are assembled to receive them. All present join in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Then the priest delivers an appropriate speech or sermon, in which he generally alludes to the betrothal of Rebecca to Isaac.

After this the conditions of the civil contract are discussed, the dowry is paid by the bridegroom, and an agreement is drawn up in which the date of the wedding is fixed. The dowry varies in amount, according to the pecuniary resources of the bridegroom; it is usually from 20l. to 100l. The bride’s father generally contributes double the sum paid, and the whole amount is spent in buying ornaments and on the trousseau. After partaking of refreshments, supplied by the groom, the guests disperse. If the date fixed for the wedding be a distant one, the young man is expected to send to his bride-elect from time to time gifts of flowers and fruit. If a festival such as Christmas or Easter intervene, he sends her a robe, with some cakes and sweetmeats. But he does not visit her himself or correspond with her.

Weddings are generally celebrated on the nights of Saturday and Sunday; but not during Lent, or any of the fasts of the Church, except under very exceptional circumstances. The first, Saturday night, is called the bride’s night. In the course of the day the bride goes to the bath with her friends and relatives; at night she is robed in her best, and holds a reception, to which all relatives and friends are bidden. All stay to dinner and spend the evening listening to singers or other people hired to amuse them—for among Orientals it is considered beneath your dignity to do anything to amuse your guests yourself; those who rejoice with you and those who weep with you are alike hired for the purpose.

The house is decorated with flowers and flags, and is brilliantly illuminated at night; but the women and the men remain apart, as with the Moslems. Very often, indeed, the men do not enter the house at all, but a large tent is erected in the garden for their reception. These tents, as well as the china, plate, and decorations, are supplied by contractors called farasheen. Dinner is served in the usual Oriental fashion, on large circular metal trays, round which as many as ten people can sit comfortably. Every guest is provided with a napkin, a spoon for the soup, and a cake of bread to serve as a plate, but no knives or forks. The washing before eating is done in public, as with the Mos’ems, and not in privacy beforehand, as with us. Everyone eats with their fingers, but all wait for the most important man at table to begin. If a priest is present, he takes precedence over all others, whatever their rank. He begins by saying grace, and then, taking a loaf of bread, he blesses it, breaks it, and gives a small piece to each person present. As many trays are brought as can be conveniently set out in the dining-hall at once, and the guests are served in relays. The bridegroom does not appear on this first night, but he sends two or three of his nearest relatives with a bouquet of flowers and a wax candle, which must be as long as the bride is tall. This candle remains lighted in the maiden’s bedchamber during the whole night.

In the evening of the Sunday—called the bridegroom’s night—the shebeen (or best man), accompanied by two or three of the nearest relatives of the bridegroom, goes to fetch the bride and escort her in procession to the house of her husband. Some years ago these Christian processions could only venture to move by night, and were then far more effective. The band went first, escorted by torchbearers; then the men, carrying each a candle in a bouquet; then pages carrying incense burners and perfume bottles, walking backwards, with their faces to the bride; and then the bride, leaning on the arm of the best man and followed by the ladies, with the servants in the rear. Now the bride and her ladies are conveyed in close carriages, preceded by music and escorted by the best man and his friends. The carriage which contains the bride is covered with a shawl or carpet of some value.

On arriving at the house a sheep or calf is slain upon the threshold, and the flesh is given to the poor. This is a custom which has come down straight from the ancient Egyptians. The bride is then taken up to the ladies’ apartment 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 ward off the effects of the evil eye. The company rest a little, and light refreshments are served, after which the wedding ceremony takes place.

This service used to be held in the church, but in the days when Christians could be attacked with impunity it became unsafe, and for some time now it has been the custom to celebrate the wedding in the bridegroom’s house. Due preparation is made, however, and the service conducted with reverence. A table is set in the centre of the largest room in the house, on which a sealed copy of the Holy Gospels in a silver case is placed. Around this are six silver crosses, to each of which three wax candles are fixed. (The triple light is intended to symbolise the Holy Trinity.) Two armchairs are set in front of the table for the accommodation of the couple about to be married; everyone else remains standing the whole time. The bridegroom is clothed in another room with his wedding garment—a cope of white silk richly embroidered, which covers his whole person.2 He does not, however, uncover his head, though this is in defiance of all Christian tradition, and the effect of the white robe is marred by the unbecoming red fez at the top. The bride is robed in white, and covered with a thin veil, like an English bride, though I have seen a Coptic bride in the red silk wedding-dress of the Moslems. She ought, of course, to be placed in the chair at the right of the bridegroom from the beginning; but Moslem ideas have so far prevailed over Egyptian customs that it occasionally happens that the bride’s throne is left empty, and the poor little bride peeps at her own wedding from behind the door. She is not fetched in till the service could not proceed without her, and then none of the other Coptic ladies come with her. Sometimes, however, an enlightened husband keeps her with him after the ceremony, and even introduces her to some of his English friends. The wedding service is not unlike our own, but the custom of crowning both bride and bridegroom (unless either of them have been married before), and covering their heads together with an embroidered scarf, to symbolise a tent, still survives among the Egyptian Christians, and it may be hoped will continue to do so.

After the wedding most of the guests remain to dinner, and spend a great part of the night in the house, listening to singers, &c. It is a point of honour for the host to keep open house on the occasion. No one is refused hospitality. The Moslem dragomans often presume on this to bring in tourists without any sort of invitation on a wedding-night, knowing that, whatever his private feelings may be, the master of the house must courteously entertain his unsought guests. As a rule the tourists who take advantage of their dragoman’s intrusion are too ignorant to know whether their hosts are Moslem or Christian, and their behaviour is not calculated to inspire belief in the superior breeding or civilisation of the European visitors to Cairo. They come in, wearing the same shabby, dusty garments in which they have been rushing about all day; they walk about as if they were looking at a waxwork show; they make ill-bred remarks in loud tones, without considering that most of the native gentlemen present understand French and English (though unfortunately they do not always know the difference between English and American); in short, they make the English who may happen to be present as guests of the family extremely uncomfortable. Even those tourists who at least know enough to ask for an invitation to a native wedding, instead of going in with a dragoman, leave so much to be desired in their behaviour when they get there that some of the great Moslem families have announced that no invitations will be issued in future to any European visitors.

On Monday, the day after a Coptic wedding, the nearest relatives on both sides spend the day at the groom’s house. The bride waits on her company in person, and every guest presents her with some gift, according to his means. This gift may be a diamond or a sum of money from 1l. to 10l.; and every donor receives in return a handkerchief embroidered by the bride. The friends of the family also contribute gifts in kind towards the wedding feast.

E. L. Butcher, The Story of the Church of Egypt: Being an Outline of the History of the Egyptians under Their Successive Masters from the Roman Conquest until Now, vol. 2 (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1897), 415–421.

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