Until the mid-1980s, Arabic films and media never even mentioned Valentine’s Day. Before the world turned into a global village, before red hearts and pink teddy bears made their way into the country, Egypt instead celebrated love with images of couples, just before, during and after their weddings.
After the mid-1980s, largely thanks to consumerism, Valentine’s Day became increasingly popular among upper middle class teenagers and college students, particularly those attending foreign schools and colleges in Cairo and Alexandria.
Journalist Mustafa Amin spearheaded the “Egyptisation” of the celebration, introducing the concept to the Egyptian community and finally selecting 4 November as a day to celebrate Eid el-Hobb (literally: “the feast of love”). This new, Egyptian day of love may not be celebrated on quite the same scale as 14 February, but it has, in fact, triggered renewed interest in the original Valentine’s Day. Over the last two decades, the celebration has become increasingly popular among youth and newlyweds.
In keeping with the themes of Valentine’s Day, Photo Heritage here presents a few photographs from the first half of the twentieth century that record expressions of love and weddings in Egyptian culture. In these images, due to the reserved nature of Middle Eastern culture, public expressions of emotion are quite limited -- if at all present.
Early postcards and albumen photographs from the turn of the century show the street procession in which a bride travels from her paternal household to her new husband’s house.
(A camel-carried coach carries the bride to her new husband’s house. The carriage was often decorated with colourful embroideries).
These processions took place in both urban and rural settings and continued up until the middle of the twentieth century in villages, according to old Egyptian films. More often than not, in rural areas, gun shots and women’s ululating, or zagharid,
would welcome the bride’s arrival at the groom’s house
As dating before marriage was -- and still is -- not a recognised practice in mainstream Egyptian culture, it is
rare to find photos from the era of couples, unless they are engaged or newly married. Professional photographers typically took these shots outdoors at public venues, such as at the pyramids, the zoo or the Merryland park in Cairo, or the Montaza gardens in Alexandria.
Other photographs played a role in budding romances, as professional matchmakers used them to arrange marriages. In classical Arabic movies, actresses Zeinat Sidky and Gamalat Zayed in particular excelled in the role of the khuttba, an expert in matchmaking and counseling on matters of the heart.
After marriage, affectionate photographs were permitted and welcome throughout the year, as is apparent in the photographs found in of the albums of Nanna and Mahamad Abdin.
(2a and 2b).
The earliest Egyptian wedding photos appeared in the 1920s, among the trend-setting upper echelons of Egyptian society, including the royal family. Weddings in Cairo and Alexandria were the most commonly photographed, as the two cities were home to Egypt’s grand photography studios. Among the most important studios were Aziz and Dores in Alexandria, and Hanselmann, Wienberg and, later, Riad Chehata in Cairo.
As years went by, wedding photography became more common, and an important element of the nuptial ceremony. Not only would a photographer document the religious rituals, but until the 1980s the bride and groom would also visit a professional studio to have their official wedding photo taken.
In downtown Cairo, Armenian studio photographers Alban, Garo, Kerop, Arto, Armand and Van Leo are among the last generation of studio photographers who excelled in taking portraits of couples.
Traditionally, the wedding reception following the rituals varied in scale depending on couple’s financial situation, but in general it was never as grandiose as they are nowadays. Professor Galal Amin touched on the subject in his book Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?
A Coptic couple from Upper Egypt marry in Alexandria in the late 1920s.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Photos courtesy of Ola.R.Seif