Marriage is an integral part of history, symbolizing the union of two people and families. Every society has its attitudes and traditions surrounding marriage and Egypt is no exception, with its rich culture that dates back to thousands of years ago.
Egyptian marriages are elaborate events that start with a formal meeting between the groom and the bride’s family called the Al-Fatihah. After an engagement party, the ceremony itself is commenced with an intricacy and extravagance that is often meant to flaunt both families’ wealth. Afterward, a celebration for the newlyweds is held with the Zaffa, a parade of belly-dancers and drummers.
Egyptian wedding traditions can be grouped according to the time they are observed: before the wedding, during the ceremony, and after the wedding.
Before the Wedding
Choosing the Partner
Traditional Egyptian weddings are usually arranged marriages based on the financial status of both families. This is more prevalent in rural areas. In urban areas, however, weddings are becoming more oriented towards the love between a man and a woman.
To formally propose, the groom-to-be meets with the bride-to-be’s family in a meeting called Al-Fatihah. The purpose of this meeting is to come to an agreement on the mahr — payment of the groom-to-be to the bride-to-be’s family — and the shabka, the gift of gold and precious stones for the bride-to-be.
The engagement party is an extravagant affair usually hosted by the bride’s family at a hotel or at home. Although the number of attendees vary greatly, there are always bountiful feasts, elaborate decorations, and many forms of entertainment.
During this party, the groom gives the shabka to the bride. After that, the couple will start wearing their rings on their right hand. In Ancient Egypt, the ring symbolizes infinity: no beginning and no end; a sign of their commitment.
Once the party is finished, the couple will start searching for a house to move to. Only when the house is found and finished can the wedding itself be planned.
The bride’s hands and feet are tattooed with henna by a hired henna artist. Henna is considered propitious in Islam. Thus, intricate patterns of henna are believed to manifest good luck and fortune for the bride.
During the Wedding
Location of the Wedding
Religious customs dictate that Christian weddings must take place in a church while Muslim weddings must take place in a mosque.
Attire for the Ceremony
The wedding location influences the attire of the couple. City ceremonies are usually more modern and would consist of the bride and groom wearing typical attire for Christian weddings: a white dress and a tuxedo suit, respectively.
Weddings outside the city are typically more conservative. Brides wear modest dresses which cover their bodies along with a veil. Grooms wear a custom robe for the ceremony.
Katb el Ketab
They say their oaths and sign the marriage contract in front of a Maa’zoun — a Muslim cleric which officially recognizes and registers the marriage to the government — and other witnesses.
This can be an intimate familial affair or an elaborate event where everyone is invited. Regardless, heaps of food are prepared and served to the guests.
The ceremony ends with the joining of hands of the groom and the bride’s father, on which a shaykh — an authorized teacher of Islamic faith — drapes a white cloth. They then reread the marriage contract and the first chapter of the Qur’an to affirm their commitment. Once done, the shaykh removes the cloth, and the couple recites some words after the Maa’zoun.
The mahr is given to the bride during the wedding. She has the freedom to spend the money according to her will, but it is expected that she will buy furniture for their house.
Other kinds of gifts are not given during the wedding, rather before or after. Visitors often give knick-knacks or decor for the house, such as a vase or china, though chocolates are also acceptable.
Music is a significant aspect of any Egyptian wedding. The newlyweds get to dance in front of their guests after having practiced their moves since the engagement. Guests usually take this opportunity to look for their potential groom or bride.
The abundant amount of food served, including stews, salads, meats, fattah, and sweets, represents the families’ wealth. There is also a layered cake which the couple will slice and feed to each other. Sharbat, a traditional wedding drink made of fruits and herbs, is also consumed throughout the ceremony.
The bride tosses her flower bouquet over her back to the women also aspiring to get married.
The guests throw grains on the newlyweds as they exit the venue. The grains are a symbol of fertility, wishing the couple a prosperous life.
After the Wedding
An Egyptian marriage is also the union of two families. This is reflected in the Zaffa, the kosha, and the tradition wherein the groom’s mother-in-law cooks all of their meals for a week. The newlyweds’ commitment to each other is then symbolized by the switching of rings.
Ululations called zaghareet can be heard from the women as the rest of the crowd dances. These ululations are high-pitched sounds accompanied by the trilling of tongues. These are expressions of excitement, enjoyment, and celebration of the new marriage.
The bride’s father then hands the bride to the groom, after which the veil is removed from her face. The groom gives her a kiss on the cheek or the forehead. Then, the procession commences once again.
All the guests join in the Zaffa. Dancers, oftentimes belly dancers, are hired to escort the couple as traditional music is played by the band. This very loud procession can last from 15 minutes to 1 hour until they enter the reception room, but the music never stops.
The bride’s friends, women also eager to get married, may pinch her knee for good luck in their love life. Concurrently, the bride also receives money as gifts discreetly pushed into her purse from her guests. This gift is called the nuqtah.
Switching of Rings
After this part of the ceremony, the party begins. Everyone sings, dances, and eats the night away.
Egyptian tradition states that for one whole week after the wedding ceremony, the bride’s mother will cook all the meals for the newlyweds.
Egyptian wedding traditions reflect the importance of religion and family in Egyptian society. This is evinced by the Al-Fatihah, a meeting where both families agree on the content of the marriage contract; the laylat al-hinna, a bachelorette party where the bride is tattooed with henna as a symbol of fortune in Islam; the Zaffa, a colorful procession with loud music which follows the handing over of the bride by her father to the groom; and so many more customs.