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A bride being dressed and adorned; local people gathering to watch; gifts lavished, feasts prepared – these are all customs one would see in a modern day wedding. According to a recent article, these customs were also part of weddings in medieval Damascus although they had their unique Middle Eastern flavour.
The article “Mamluk ‘Ulama’ on Festivals and Rites of Passage: Wedding Customs in 15th century Damascus,” by Yehoshua Frenkel, explores what is known as how marriages and weddings took place in the Syrian city. Using a wide variety of sources, including chronicles, literary works and legal rulings, Frenkel is able to detail this aspect of medieval daily life.
If two families had successfully negotiated a marriage, the first formal step in the process was the public signing of a marriage contract, which would have been written on silk tissue. As with many parts of the wedding, musicians would take part and people from the neighbourhood would gather to watch.
On the day of the actual wedding ceremony, the bride would be dressed in her richest clothes, adorned with ornaments and perfume, and even have a hairdresser on hand to help her prepare. Meanwhile, the groom would send members of his family to collect his spouse – they would meet the bride’s family in the streets, with huge crowds watching. Frenkel writes, “the meeting between the two parties, the one that came to take the bride and the other that was supposed to hand her over was orchestrated in a style to remind the spectators of a tough market negotiation rather than a cheerful happening.” It would inevitably conclude with the bride’s family hosting a large feast with a goat or other animal as the main course.
Once the traditional banquet was finished, the bride was sent off in a wedding procession, along with her gifts, in a display that was meant to show off her family’s wealth and power. “The bride wore on her head a triangular headgear (sharbush). The porters held the bride’s garb in such a way that the gathering could inspect it. It was a mixed gender event. The celebrants, men and women, mingled in the streets, raising their voices in clamour and cries, aiming to show off their wealth.”
The destination would be the home of the groom. Frenkel describes how a brother of one bride saw the scene:
The house was decorated, the floor covered with carpets, furniture was brought in and lamps lighted the scene. From behind a curtain his sister proceeded, decorated with jewellery, a crown on her head and surrounded by candles. Followed by musicians beating the tambourine she crossed the mingling guests and approached her spouse. The young groom kissed the bride’s forehead. He and the people standing next to him scattered coins over her.
In another case the bride brought with her a sword, which she gave to her husband, which he took and knocked her on the head with the blunt end three times. The party would continue on, apparently very noisy.
The article then notes the final step in the wedding:
The consummation of the marriage was celebrated after the wedding party. The mother of the husband was standing at the door, not allowing the young couple to enter the house. They had to bend under her legs. Women stood outside the couple’s room all night, seemingly guarding the pair. In the morning, they knocked on the door and entered the couple’s room. The women dressed the young bride with trousers and advised her how she could devise and avoid sleeping with her fresh husband.
Islamic religious scholars sometimes noted their displeasure with some of the aspects of these wedding ceremonies, such as the intermingling of men and women, and the lavish displays of wealth, but that seemed to have little influence on these traditions. Meanwhile, the scholar ‘Alawun al-Hamawi al-Shalafi (1430-1529) complained that men were making bad choices with their wives. Instead of looking for upright women, “he inquires about her look; is she beautiful, what is the value of her trousseau, and does she possess a rich wardrobe?…acting in this manner is sheer stupidity. You should know that the soul of the sinful is a sort of deadly poison.”
Frenkel, a professor at the Department of Middle Eastern History at the University of Haifa (and currently a visiting fellow at the University of Bonn) and author of several articles on the social history of the medieval Middle East and North Africa, notes two important themes in weddings in 15th century Damascus: the public nature of the ceremony and the involvement of the extended family of both spouses.
His article appears in Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk Eras VI, (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 183) which was published by Peeters in 2010.