TRAVEL THERE: A VERY DIFFERENT KIND OF CEREMONY
So far, Bassem and Miriam’s wedding day has been pretty mundane, if you don’t count the machine guns on our bus. Once the church doors opened, everything changed. We were at a Coptic Wedding.
Saint Mark Coptic Church
When the huge doors opened, the scent of incense wafted out into the waiting crowd and I was awestruck. The church was gorgeous, obviously very, very old, but beautiful. You got the impression God had been hanging out here for a very long time.
It was not a particularly large church, but it was grandly decorated with beautiful paintings and an amazing amount of gold. There was no formal seating going on. Everyone just wandered in and took a seat. There was no his side and her side, just folks wandering into a pew as they entered. The family was sort of huddled over to one side. We had some front row seats, but they certainly were not particularly advantageous.
Forget What You Know About Weddings
Throw out preconceptions, because this had nothing in common with your basic American wedding. The bride and groom were seated in thrones at the front of the church. The photographers and videographers considered themselves very much part of the ceremony and spread themselves out across the front of the church. Joining them on the stage were a group of priests in decidedly Coptic garb.
Now I’ve been to weddings where there were more than one officiant. Sometimes it’s because each family wants to be represented or there are several members of the clergy in the family. This wedding had an entire crowd of priests. They’re the guys wearing the black turbans, but these four in the picture are only a sample.
I was made to understand the number of priests reflected the status of the people getting married and no one could remember a wedding where they’d seen more priests. Most gratifying was the priest who had come all the way from Sharm El Sheik because of my niece, who holds such a special place in their congregation. Each of the priests participated in one way or another. Some doing ceremonial duty and others delivering pithy little sermonettes to the bride and groom. (None of which I could understand, of course, because they were in either Coptic or Arabic.)
All the while, the church was a beehive of activity. Along with all the priests were acolytes and altar boys wandering around doing a variety of tasks, from swinging incense burners to lighting candles. At one point my nephew Shady went up to read the Bible. Also any time a priest wasn’t involved in the ceremony, they were kept busy blessing whoever came up to the stage, bowed before them and kissed their hands.
Folks seeking blessings weren’t the only ones who came up to the stage. As if the photography and videography crew of about six people weren’t enough, no one hesitated to pop right up out of their seat and head up to the front to get a picture – and if the best angle was between the priest and the wedding couple, then so be it.
I was gob-smacked. I couldn’t believe it. The bride and groom were almost an after-thought in all the frenetic activity. Suddenly it was all over. The bride and groom stood. A few pictures were taken and we all filed out of the church.
Let the Turnover Begin
I was still trying to process what I had seen, when I realized that as soon as the bride and groom had their back towards the stage, folks started tearing down the decorations so they could get set for the next wedding.
An American church might have 2 or three weddings on a given day, but Coptic churches schedule about an hour per wedding and stack them all day long, from early in the morning until late in the evening – especially on holidays like the day after Easter. If they get behind, which apparently they always do, then they just hurry you up a little more.
Once we were outside, you could see they had already redecorated the entry to the church and on a corner near the church were the floral remains of several different ceremonies. Egyptians do have a receiving line, but it’s held on the porch of the church, rather than at the reception. As the wedding party assembled into the obligatory formation, a limo pulled up in front of the church. I will never forget seeing the bride get out of the limo, go through the security routine we had and then climb up the stairs to the sanctuary. It was one of those odd scenes that you can’t erase.
Then it was back in the bus and back to the Fairmont.