Royal Egyptian Wedding

Public and Private Entertainment at a Royal Egyptian Wedding: 1845

By Kathleen Fraser

In 1842, Edward Lane, the English author of the best-selling Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, returned to Egypt for the third time. With him came his sister, Sophie Lane-Poole. Her brother had suggested to her that she might contribute to his own work on Egyptian society in a way he had never been able to do—that is to research the lives of Egyptian women—and she had agreed. Lane-Poole wrote of her experiences in Egypt as a series of letters home to England over the years 1842 to 1846, eventually published in three volumes. Unlike her brother’s books, which are eagerly and regularly consulted by modern Middle Eastern dance historians and dance enthusiasts, today her books are entirely forgotten and difficult to obtain.

It must be confessed that as an author she lacked her brother’s talent, and most of her material is uninspiring. There are two notable exceptions, however, and for these her work deserves to be revived today.1 She writes in great detail of a royal wedding in 1845 [78-138], and supplements this information with descriptions of a royal wedding in 1834 taken from her brother’s earlier unpublished travel notes. [61-77] These 70-odd pages contain valuable facts and details not recorded in any other travel literature. In particular, from her work new insights can be gained to resolve the present controversy in Middle Eastern dance circles as to which arts the awalim of Egypt practiced, and whether they continued to perform after the official ban on public dance in 1834.

In 1845 Zaynab Hanum, youngest daughter of the Viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, married Kamil Pasha, one of his functionaries. The entire city of Cairo was the setting for the pomp and ceremony of the eight-day wedding celebrations, which included processions and public festivities and entertainments available to the entire population. While enthusiasts of Middle Eastern dance will naturally concentrate on Lane-Poole’s descriptions of the wedding’s dance entertainments, and I do too in this article, it is important to point out that these particular dance episodes were only small “happenings” within the vastly larger setting of a royal wedding. The wedding was intended to demonstrate to the populace of Cairo, and of all Egypt, the fabulous wealth and total power of the ruling family, and as such had an important political function. This much larger framework of the fabulous wedding, then, gives these particular dance performances their ultimate meaning. It is not really possible to speak of watching “dance” in this instance as one might in speaking of a ballet performance, and we as westerners need always to keep this in mind. Constant reference back and forth between the main events (which constitute by far the bulk of Lane-Poole’s descriptions) and the dance will keep a balanced perspective as to the latter’s role in the wedding.

Elaborate entertainments in a wealthy harem reminiscent of what Lane-Poole describes of the royal wedding of 1845. Egyptian and European women sit on divans around the edges of a great salon. Eight female musicians in a line sit cross-legged on a carpet, playing a variety of instruments. Three Egyptian dancers perform together in the center of room. Five women, probably harem slaves, carry lighted staves in what may be a Circassian or Turkish dance. Probably late 19th century.

From Lane-Poole’s book we learn the following. At Muhammad Ali’s citadel palace the large two-story and separate harem building was the site of the dance entertainments—intended for an all-female audience. In residence in the harem for the eight days of the wedding were female members of the royal family, wealthy Egyptian women from Cairo and the provinces, and a few European female guests of the Viceroy’s family, Lane-Poole among them. During the day, throughout the week, the great lower salon of the harem was thrown open to all the women of Cairo who thronged to watch the entertainments and ceremonies, be fed, and if they were lucky, to snatch up some of the distributed coins. Lane-Poole suggests that as many as 7000 women from all levels of Egyptian society were present in the harem on any given day. In the harem, Muhammad Ali’s oldest daughter, Nazla, directed the elaborate ceremonies that included: displays of the brides2 and their riches, elaborate entrances and exits of the royal women, fabulous costume changes by the royal women each day, kissing the Viceroy’s hands, distribution of money, the bride’s procession to the bath, and dinner parties for hundreds in the evening. These highly ritualized events seem as carefully calculated to impress as the public displays in the streets outside.

Lane-Poole’s account goes faithfully day-by-day, following her diary, but the entertainments were similar each day,
and I can generalize. Those guests who had slept in the palace rose early to music and dance in the great lower salon. Lane-Poole tells of a large hired orchestra of Egyptian women, “Arab females,” seated in a circle in the middle of the hall. They played “every variety of instruments used in this country” (unfortunately not named), described as “beautifully picturesque in form, and daintily inlaid with mother-of-pearl and dark wood.” [106] This circle of “Arab” musicians remained all day and into the evening, sometimes singing, sometimes playing, sometimes some of their members dancing. Obviously talented and versatile, they responded by playing Turkish music and even singing in Turkish when the Turkish and Georgian slave dance groups were performing.

Two women of the hired “Arab” orchestra were preeminent in both singing and dancing. Lane-Poole says of the two stars: “The first Arab singers of Egypt … they … danced in the Arab manner, for which performance they are also celebrated as the first of their day.” [96]3 They performed together as a duo, both dancing and singing, at other times three others from their group joined the dance. One afternoon a further sixth performer disguised as a clown, with a fool’s cap, imitated the other five and ridiculed their movements. [108] Lane-Poole loved the singing, and found it enchanting. “The great saloon seemed filled with music … yet their tones were so modulated that they fell sweetly on the ear .” [121] Lane?Poole also approved their attire as “tasteful” but found the dancing “disgusting” and refused to give details [96]. She also described it as “odious.” [104] Lane-Poole describes how, on the final day of the wedding, each Almah received the gift of a costly cashmere shawl4, the one who had acted as a clown winding hers around her fool’s cap. [108]

Lane?Poole tells of female slave troupes of Turkish and Georgian extraction, members of the harem, who played tambourines and danced. The young Georgian girls were lively and energetic, with flying hair. [120] The Turkish groups performed energetic, physical dances, tumbling, stepping and hopping. They also danced with wooden swords and shields, hitting out at one another. [106] Lane-Poole was dismayed to discover that they could also dance “in the manner of the Almeh,” and found this took away their previous appearance of “innocence.” [122]

Dinner was served upstairs at six, and afterwards in the great salon below the same entertainments continued, in a somewhat more formal and exclusive manner than during the day, although still with hundreds of women watching. The senior elder members of the harem seated themselves on divans, and the performers directed their efforts towards them. The same Egyptian entertainers were present, as well as the harem slave troupes. Generally the program stopped at 11 o’clock, except for the last night when celebrations continued until 2 in the morning.

Lane-Poole was too exhausted after the final evening in the harem to attend the zaffa of the bride (procession to her husband’s home) the next morning. However she wished to round out her account of a royal wedding by including the more public events, those accessible to male Egyptians of all classes. She therefore added material from her brother’s notes on a royal wedding in 1834. Among these were details of the earlier zaffa, the most complete I have found in the literature. One reads that those awalim who had participated in the harem celebrations also rode in the procession of the bride to her new home. They are described as riding in a covered car with open sides and drawn by four horses; they were veiled and sang as they went through the streets.

With a careful reading of Lane-Poole’s observations, a greatly enlarged understanding of the Egyptian professional dance scene in the mid-19th century becomes possible. I point out these particular conclusions:

· With Lane-Poole’s statement that the two “best dancers in Egypt” performed at the wedding, I theorize that a recognized and widely accepted dance aesthetic existed in mid-19th century Egypt at all levels. Such an aesthetic also would encompass the premise of “lesser” dancers. Most Egyptians would know and accept the rankings because they understood the evaluation criteria.

· One learns specifically that these awalim who took part in the royal wedding were versatile artists who could dance, sing, and play a wide variety of Egyptian instruments, as well as sing in Turkish and play Turkish music. The mastery of many musical instruments by these entertainers is an important fact, hitherto unnoted in the literature.

· Lane, Lane-Poole’s brother, had from his earliest research in 1825 always maintained that only “lesser” awalim would dance. He said: “There are also many [awalim] of an inferior class, who sometimes dance in the hareem; hence travellers have often misapplied the name of ‘alme,’ meaning ‘almeh,’ to the common dancing girls.” [355] His remarks have plagued modern discussions in Middle Eastern dance for some decades. But in Lane-Poole’s account the two preeminent dancers of the era (Lane-Poole calls them both Arab and almeh), along with a large group of colleagues, perform for a wedding of the Egyptian ruling house. These were no simple performers, but the most esteemed available. I think we can definitively discard Lane’s earlier remarks as now corrected by his sister’s research.

· Also highly important, one learns that even when public dance had been banned from the streets and byways of Cairo and Alexandria since 1834, fine professional dance continued to thrive, obviously valued and patronized at the highest echelons of society. I stress here professional dance: despite foreign slave troupes in the harem, local Egyptian stars were the acknowledged artists of merit, hired for the wedding as a matter of course.

· Lane-Poole contributes significantly to an understanding of the arts of the harem. There were different dance styles in the royal harem, with slave dancers from Turkey, Georgia and the Caucuses. The important point derived from Lane-Poole is that their styles were distinguishable from the local Egyptian professional style. Noteworthy also was that the slave troupes might copy the Egyptian style in performance.

· Lane-Poole’s work resolves another issue, a long-standing mystery in the literature: the role of awalim in a zaffa. The Egyptian chronicler Jabarti (later 8th-early 9th century) noted several times that female singers/dancers took part “as a guild” in wedding processions, but gave no further details. Lane-Poole provides one answer how such participation was carried out—riding veiled in a cart and singing as they went. As riders, instead of walkers, in the zaffa they were certainly being accorded some status.

· While professional dancing and singing were not the most central aspect of this fabulous royal wedding, these costly all-day and week-long performances were integral elements of the hospitality offered to the harem guests. They provided—and were intended to provide—a permanent backdrop of elegance and refinement calculated to demonstrate Muhammad Ali’s stature as a generous ruler and person of discernment.

· Finally, I point out that during this wedding and others like it, even poor Egyptian women would have access to the best of their nation’s dancing. In this regard, knowledge of excellence in female dancing would not die out in the general national consciousness despite the ban on public street performances.

Lane-Poole was the right person in the right place at the right time. I have given only a sampling of what the 70-odd page account contains and there are many other riches to be mined from her descriptions of these royal weddings. Middle Eastern dance lovers are fortunate that she took the trouble to record what she saw and left such unique detailed notes. Despite her limitations as an author, ironically she has added, I believe, far more to an understanding of 19th century Egyptian dance than her famous brother. She should be acknowledged as a real contributor to dance research.

End Notes

1. It would be useful for these pages to be reprinted in their entirety for the many other details on a wedding of status in Egypt at the time.

2. There was another unnamed bride who seems to have been married simply to take advantage of the festivities already available.

3. Lane-Poole’s remarks are notable in that these two unnamed dancers were considered the best in Egypt even though the great Safia was still performing in Isna.

4. 1 am assuming that they were also paid handsomely, but the shawl as a gift is commonly mentioned in the literature.


Lane, Edward William. An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. East-West Publications, The Hague and London. 1978. [Reprint of 1895 edition.]

Lane-Poole, Sophie: An Englishwoman in Egypt: Letters from Cairo written during a residence there in 1845-46. Second Series. London. Charles Knight and Co. 1846.

This paper was presented at the 2nd International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, May 2001.

Kathleen Fraser has had a varied career with involvement in Canadian magazines, overseas foreign development, race relations and affirmative action. She is also involved with editing, teaching writing, multi-culturalism…and raising four daughters. In 1991 she completed a masters degree in dance history at York University, Toronto, Canada, with a thesis on the aesthetics of Egyptian belly dancing. Now “retired,” she pursues her own interests related to Middle Eastern dance, including Arabic studies, music, writing and researching the 19th century history of Egyptian female entertainers. She has a book scheduled for completion in 2002.

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