A Christian Wedding

From Domestic Life In Palestine
By Mary Eliza Rogers

A few days afterward, I was invited to a wedding in the Sekhali family, Christian Arabs of the orthodox Greek community. At about eight o'clock, A. M., I was led into their church, a domed building, lighted from above, and gaudy with highly-colored, distorted copies of ancient Byzantine pictures; for the Greeks, though not allowed to have images to assist them in their devotions, may have pictures, provided they are not too life-like! The body of the church, unincumbered by stalls or chairs, was already nearly filled with wedding guests, holding lighted - homemade - wax tapers; one was placed in my hands. In the center of the crowd, at a lectern, stood a priest, and, immediately before him, the bride, closely shrouded in a white izzar. A many-colored muslin vail entirely concealed her features. The bridegroom by her side, who was only seventeen, wore a suit of sky-blue cloth, edged with gold thread, and a handsome crimson and white shawl girdle. He had only once seen the face of the bride, and that was six months before, on the day of the betrothal.

The service was in Arabic, and rapidly uttered in clear but monotonous tones. The most important part of it seemed to be the Gospel narrative of the marriage at Cana, in Galilee. While the priest was reading it, bread and wine were handed to the young man. He gave some to the girl, who, in laking it, was very careful not to expose her face. Immediately afterward, she held out one of her henna-stained hands, and a jeweled ring was placed on her finger. Two crowns, made of gilt foil, were brought by the bridegroom's-man and bride's-woman, and placed on the heads of the now married pair, who joined hands, and with their two attendants walked round and round in the midst of the people, who made way for them and sprinkled them with rose-water and other scents as they passed, singing, and shouting good wishes. By the time the circuit had been made seven times, the vails of the bride and bride's-woman were quite saturated, and the two men submitted, without the slightest resistance, to have bottles of scent emptied on their tarbushes. As the excitement increased, the sprinkling became general, and I came in for my share. Thus ended the ceremony.

While this was going on, a continual shrill screaming accompaniment was kept up by the female friends of the bride, who were crowded together in the latticed gallery overhead. There were very few women in the body of the church, and those were near relations of the bride or bridegroom. Presently the men formed a procession, and with the bridegroom in their midst, walked out of church. A pipe-bearer, carrying a handsome chibouque, was in attendance, and he handed it to the bridegroom whenever the leaders paused to dance, or to sing some wild extravagant love-song. Rose-water was poured on his head from the roofs or windows of the houses under which he passed. Etiquette required that he should look quite calm and composed in the midst of the noise and excitement. I was told by Saleh that he preserved his dignified demeanor throughout the day, while his friends and fellow-townsmen were feasting and making merry round him, and singing bridal songs.

In the mean time, the bride, with her female attendants and companions, all vailed, and shrouded in white, walked very slowly toward her home - the home of her childhood; for she was not to go forth to meet the bridegroom till after sunset. I accompanied her. We all carried our tapers, although it was the third hour, that is, about nine o'clock, A. M. We paused now and then while one of the professional singing women improvised a solo, suitable for the occasion. All the women took up the words, and joined in chorus, as we walked on again. One verse was in allusion to the presence of a daughter of England at the wedding. It was regarded as a favorable omen. The chorus was a prayer for the peace and happiness of the English girl. We mounted a broad, covered stone staircase, and, passing through a corridor, entered a large, many-windowed room. The bride was led to a sort of throne, made of cushions and embroidered pillows, and I was placed by her side. Her white izzar and vail were taken off. She looked dreadfully faint and fatigued. She was not more than fourteen years old, with an oval face, rather large lips, and black, delicately-arched eyebrows. Her eyes were shut; for custom makes it a point of honor for a bride to keep them closed from the time she leaves the church till the moment she meets the bridegroom at night. She sat in state, in a kneeling posture, resting on her heels, while the palms of her hands were placed flat on her knees, as some Indian deities are represented. Her head-dress was almost concealed by strings of pearls, festoons of small gold coins, diamond - or paste - rosettes, and flower sprays. Her long hair, twisted with braid, hung down her back in nine plaits, heavy with little gold ornaments and coins. She wore a purple velvet jacket, very open in front, showing her crape shirt and her chest, which was actually adorned with little bits of leaf-gold! Her necklace, or collar of gold coins, was very beautiful. Her skirt of white and yellow silk almost concealed her full, yellow silk drawers. Her hands and arms were checkered with deep orange-brown henna stains; but what struck me more than all, was the glossy, shining luster of her skin.

The Bride

She sat in state...

While I had been intently watching and observing the bride, the company of women had quite transformed themselves. They had thrown off their white izzars and vails, and now appeared in all the colors of the rainbow - in all sorts of combinations. The faces of many looked as glossy as the bride's. Nearly all of them had very large dark eyes, with the edges of the eyelids blackened with kohl. Their mouths were rather wide, and revealed large, very perfect white teeth, which glistened as the teeth of wild animals do. Their complexions were generally dark, but brilliant and clear. They came forward, one by one, to kiss the bride's hand; but she remained quite passive, and did not answer any salutations. Dancing and singing commenced. A woman kept time with a tambourine, and two or three dancers stood up in the center of the room, and attitudinized gracefully but voluptuously. They began very slowly - advancing, as if reluctantly and timidly, toward some imaginary object - then retreating, only to advance again, gradually quickening both step and action. The lookers on sat round on the matted floor, in a double row, clapping their hands in harmony with the tambourine, and singing wild, passionate songs, to melodies in a minor key, in two-four time. As soon as one dancer was tired, another stood up and replaced her; and four of them worked themselves up into such a state of excitement that they looked as if they were dying, when at last they gave way. Some of the younger girls wore white calico dresses, with small gold spangles sewed all over them in clusters; others had on white thin muslin skirts, over blue or red silk trowsers, and red or black velvet jackets; and, when they danced, they held in their hands embroidered shawls, which they waved about gracefully. Sweetmeats, fruits, creams, and various dishes were served at midday.

After sunset the mother and female relations of the bridegroom came to fetch the bride; and then she commenced crying and wailing bitterly. This is expected of her; and, whether she feel regret or no, she must show signs of sorrow on leaving her home, and must also appear unwilling to go forth to meet the bridegroom. This real or affected reluctance is sometimes carried to such an extent that the weeping bride has to be pushed and dragged along very ungracefully. I have witnessed ludicrous scenes of this kind. The vailed bride, whose eyes are still supposed to be closed - but she does peep about a little - is generally Ijifted on to a horse; and, though her new home may be only in the next street, she makes a tour through the town or village, riding very slowly, attended by a large company of women and girls, carrying flaming torches, and screaming and singing wildly.

I have often lent my horse to a poor girl that she may thus ride in triumph, lifted up among the crowd of torch-bearers, to meet her bridegroom; and very often, just before midnight, I have been attracted to the window to see such processions pass by.

Before the going forth of the bride a party of men and women convey her trousseau by torch-light to her new home. A red wooden cradle and a red box are always the most conspicuous objects. Sometimes a small looking-glass in a gilt frame is proudly displayed. Pillows covered with bright-colored silks, a trayful of scented soap, a mattress or two, and a lehaff may be seen, varying in quality according to the rank of the bride.

On subsequent and persevering inquiry among Arab ladies, I found out how it was that the bride's face looked so lustrous. I learned that girls are prepared for marriage with a very great deal of ceremony. There are women who make the beautifying of brides their especial profession! A widow woman, named Angelina, is the chief artiste in this department of art in Hâifa. She uses her scissors and tweezers freely and skillfully to remove superfluous hair, and trains the eyebrow to an arched line, perfecting it with black pigments. She prepares an adhesive plaster of very strong, sweet gum, and applies it by degrees all over the body, letting it remain on for a minute or more; then she tears it off quickly, and it brings away with it all the soft down or hair, leaving the skin quite bare, with an unnaturally-bright and polished appearance, much admired by Orientals. The face requires very careful manipulation.1 When women have once submitted to this process, they look frightful if from time to time they do not repeat it; for the hair never grows so soft and fine again. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why aged Arab women, who have quite given up all these arts of adornment, look so haggard and witch-like. In some instances this ordeal slightly irritates the skin, and perfumed sesame or olive-oil is applied, or cooling lotions of elder-flower water are used.

The bride invites her friends to accompany her to the public bath previous to the wedding day, and sends to each one a packet of henna, two or three pieces of soap, and two wax candles. Angelina is generally the bearer of the message and of these articles, which are always to be paid for. I have now and then accepted such invitations.

Bridal parties assemble and sometimes pass three successive days in the luxury of the Turkish bath. Pipes, sherbet, coffee, and other refreshments are served, and songs are sung in honor of the bride, who is, of course, attended by Angelina, and forms the center of attraction. Her hair is unbraided, she is slowly disrobed, and then, with her loins slightly girdled with crimson silk, she is mounted on high clogs, and led through halls and passages gradually increasing in temperature, with fountains overflowing their marble floors. She is placed on a marble platform, near to a jet of hot water. Fullers' earth is rubbed on her head, she is lathered with soap, and brushed with a handful of tow. Hot water is poured over her, freely, she is swathed in long towels, and by slow degrees conducted back to a more moderate temperature, and lastly to a fountain of cool water. Her companions in the mean time undergo the same process. Then, shrouded in muslin, crape, or linen, they sit together, smoking, till they are rested and refreshed.

The edges of the eyelids are blackened thus - a little instrument, like a silver bodkin, is dipped in water, and then into a bottle or box containing an impalpable powder called kohl made of antimony and carefully-prepared soot; the blackened point is drawn gently along between the almost closed lids of the eyes. Poor people use soot alone, and apply it with pins made of lignum vitae.2

The arms and hands, legs and feet, are bandaged with narrow tape or braid, like sandals, crossing and recrossing each other; then a paste made of moistened henna powder - the pulverized leaves of the henna tree - Lawsonia - is spread and bound over them, and allowed to remain on for several hours. When it is removed, the skin is found deeply dyed wherever the tape - which is now unwound - did not protect it. Thus a sort of checkered pattern is produced, and when it is artistically and delicately done - as Angelina can do it - the feet look, at a distance, as if they were sandaled, and the hands as if they were covered with mittens of a bright orange or bronze color.

Finally, early on the wedding-day, the bride is dressed in her bridal robes. Her hair is braided in what we call the Grecian plait. Small pieces of leaf-gold are stuck on her forehead and on her breast. Care is taken not to conceal any of the stars or spots tattooed on her face or chest in infancy. A line of blue dots encircling the lips is sometimes seen, and a spot on the chin is very common. A little rouge is added to heighten the color of the cheeks when considered necessary.

Angelina gets into sad disgrace with the clergy of Hâifa for encouraging all this vanity, out of which she, by the by, makes a good living. She goes from one church to another for absolution, sometimes reckoning herself a Greek, sometimes a Latin, and sometimes a Melchite, according to the leniency of the respective priests.

The Arab women are very much wedded to the ancient customs of the country, and they will not abandon them, notwithstanding the persevering efforts of the priesthood.

The Greek Catholic Church vainly pronounces anathemas, and threatens with excommunication those women who tattoo themselves, and use kohl, and henna, and rouge. They will persist in doing so while they believe that it adds to their beauty, and to their powers of attraction, and in vain the noisy processions at weddings and at burials are forbidden, so long as the people believe them to be propitious. Their respect for custom is stronger even than their fear of the Church. If the priests persisted in carrying out their threats of excommunication for such offenses, their congregations would soon be scattered; so they are lenient, and thus Greek and Roman forms of Christianity are blended insensibly with ceremonies and practices so ancient that their origin even is unknown.