An Antiochian wedding at the St. Louis World’s Fair

Postcard featuring the replica “Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” part of the “Jerusalem” exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

(An earlier version of this post was published in 2010.)

108 years ago this week, in 1904, St. Raphael Hawaweeny, the Syro-Arab Bishop of Brooklyn, officiated at a wedding in St. Louis. The English bride and Arab groom had a rather romantic backstory, and the wedding took place at the imitation Holy Sepulchre in the “Jerusalem” exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. The newspaper article below appeared in the Bellingham (Wash.) Herald (10/1/1904). After the article, I’ll offer some additional information and commentary.

It was a great event, this marriage of a fair haired English girl and dark-skinned Syrian. In Jerusalem at the World’s Fair every one was in gala attire. There was a sea of […] color. The Turk, resplendent in flowing silken robes with red tarbouche on head; the Syrian, in gold broidered jacket and trousers of ample proportions; the solemn-visaged Jew and the white-burnoused Arab sheik from the Saharan desert, were assembled to do the couple honor.

The wedding was the culmination of a romantic courtship which was not without its thorny side. The bride, Miss Ethel Thomas of Hanley York, England, met the hero of the romance while a tourist in the Holy Land. Under the warm skies of Palestine their love grew apace, and while the intelligent dragoman waxed eloquent over many a hoary rum his glances were all for the pretty English girl. The other members of the party decided that the attentions of the swarthy guide were too pointed and demanded his removal. Whether it was pity engendered by his dismissal or real affection, the spirited girl determined to leave the party. She joined another, always with the faithful Najib Ghazal as the dragoman. When the tour was over, Miss Thomas returned to the bosom of her family. Her swarthy adorer quickly followed and asked the father of the damsel for her hand. This was refused, and the family offered violent opposition. Mr. Ghazal was under contract to appear as a guide in Jerusalem at the World’s Fair, and was forced to sail without his bride to be. Finally the matter was adjusted, and Miss Thomas sailed to New York, where she was met by her faithful lover. He saw Archbishop Hawawini of Brooklyn, the high primate of the Greek church in the United States, who consented to come to St. Louis in order to unite the pair. The ceremony was inaugurated with all of the state incident to the Greek ritual. The marriage took place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The bride and her only bridesmaid or shabinat, were attired in white. The bride, with a hat instead of the conventional bridal veil, led the procession, the groom and groomsmen, or shabins, following. In the regular Syrian service it is the custom for the groomsmen to carry the groom, holding him high above the bride during the ceremony. This is to signify the lower position of the wife in the household, for in Oriental countries she is quite a subordinate being. The air was redolent with the perfume of flowers, the air was heavy with aromatic incense, the guests held painted and blessed wax candles, the lights dancing like ingnus fatui in the semi-gloom of the church. These holy tapers are preserved as mementoes. The bride and groom also held two artistically ornamented candles. During the ceremony the priest asks the couple all sorts of trying questions, as for instance, he demands of the bride whether she will promise to bear every vicissitude with loving patience and be ever faithful to her lord and master. He asks the groom whether he will provide a comfortable home and always be kind to his wife. Of course, they signify their consent. There is much chanting during the service, accompanied with profound genuflexions. It is in Arabic. Long and tedious but of picturesque grandeur is the Greek wedding ritual. The priest places upon the fingers of the couple two silver rings linked together with a slender chain, emblematic of their eternal union. The chain is then severed and the golden wedding ring placed upon the fingers of both. Still kneeling the couple drink holy wine from the same cup and partake of the sacrificial bread. This is to signify the union of the blood of life, the bread typifies the flesh. Lastly a cup of water is drunk, which is emblematic of the washing away of all impurity.

When the bridal party emerged from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a silver clarinet played a triumphal bridal march. The newly married pair threw nickels and bon bons to the crowd who scrambled for the largess.

Before entering her home provided for her the bride flings a piece of dough upon the portal. If it sticks it is regarded as a happy omen, but if it does not dire misfortune is predicted by the wise women.

Mr. and Mrs. Najib Ghazal will remain in St. Louis until the conclusion of the exposition, as Mr. Ghazal is employed as a dragoman in Jerusalem.

The betrothal of a Syrian couple is entirely the affair of the parents, the prospective bride and groom having nothing whatever to do with it. It is not even considered good form for the young man to see the face of the young woman. He must be content with the description of his mother or the professional matchmaker. What a number of disappointments there must be in store. The burden of providing a trousseau for the bride rests upon the groom. Even though he belongs to the middle class and is not the possessor of great wealth, he must send not less than twenty silk dresses to his bride, also ten gold or silver necklaces, diamond earrings and brooches. This is a provident proceeding, for the groom if disenchanted may abandon the bride the next day; in this case he leaves her well provided with the wherewithal to entrap another husband. The bride must always be subject to her mother-in-law, as it is the Syrian custom not to provide a separate home. This is a survival of patriarchal or rather matriarchal domination which prevails in most Oriental nations.

Prior to the marriage ceremony the friends of the groom take him to the nearest bath house and scrub him thoroughly, the prospective bridesmaids doing the same for the bride. Instead of the butter knives, pickle dishes and assortment of heterogeneous objects presented to the American bride, relatives and friends send offering[s] of money. This is in reality money loaned without interest, as the exact sums must be returned to each donor upon their marriage. Every guest proffers two cakes of soap, and when the pair have a number of relatives and friends, there is often sufficient soap to last a lifetime.

This article’s description of the Orthodox wedding is… well, curious. I am by no means an expert on Orthodox wedding practices, but I am an Arab Orthodox Christian myself, and I was married a traditional Orthodox ceremony in the Antiochian Archdiocese. I’ve attended numerous other Orthodox weddings — all here in the United States, which does limit my exposure, but still — and I’ve never heard of a groom being hoisted into the air by groomsmen during the wedding service. It’s also not clear what, exactly this St. Louis couple consumed. My wife and I partook of wine in the “common cup.” In the distant past, I understand that the Eucharist itself was used. But this St. Louis couple apparently was given, separately, wine, bread, and water. And then there are the questions — the wife was asked whether she would “be ever faithful to her lord and master,” and the husband whether he would “provide a comfortable home,” etc. But in my experience, the husband and wife are only asked one question apiece — whether they have come with a “free and unconstrained will” to be joined to the other person. If any of our readers have insight into what was going on at this St. Louis wedding, please let me know.

(A thought just occurred to me: maybe the author of this article mistakenly attended some other wedding, rather than the Orthodox one. Does the description sound like a ceremony any of you recognize? Or, I guess, the author could have not attended the wedding at all, and made up the details. After all, this article appeared in a Washington newspaper, half a country away, just one day after the event. But… I don’t know. What do you think?)

Anyway, I did some further digging to learn more about Najib Ghazal and Ethel Thomas. Najib arrived at Ellis Island on May 1, 1904, having sailed from Liverpool aboard the Lucania. He is listed on the ship manifest as “Nagib E. Ghazal,” a single 30-year-old Syrian. His reported residence is London. Ethel was about 22 at the time of her wedding. After the World’s Fair, they remained in the United States; presumably, both became naturalized US citizens. They moved around quite a bit — the US Censuses have them in Brooklyn in 1910, San Francisco in 1920, and Detroit in 1930. I can’t find either Najib or Ethel in the 1940 Census, so they might have died by then. As best I can tell, the couple had one child, George, who lived from 1906 to 1984. A quick Google search turns up several Ghazals in Detroit, and these may be the descendants of Najib and Ethel.

If anyone out there has more information, please let us know.

Matthew Namee

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