Arranged Marriage: Ottoman Empire Style

The romantic notion of marrying for love has taken a firm hold on the North American view of marriage. How much of that expectation is due to movies out of Hollywood, California, is anybody’s speculation. A lasting marriage arising out of any other foundation seems unlikely to our ‘modern’ mind set.

Marriages in the Ottoman Empire, however, weren’t made by the young. The elders of the two families arranged any marriages. At least that was true for the Turks and, in the best of circumstances, the Armenians, as well.

A Turkish mother with a son of marriageable age was the one to start the ball rolling. She would visit the homes of girls to look for a prospective bride. The boy’s mother expected the young girl to be dressed her best and use the family’s best coffee service. While the boy’s mother inspected her, the girl had to stand and wait with head bowed. Once the mother guest returned the coffee cup, the girl withdrew from the sitting room. From house to house, the boy’s mother visited until she had made her selection. The boy’s mother would revisit the home of the chosen girl and ask the girl’s mother for the girl’s hand in marriage. The girl’s mother would ask questions of the boy’s work and other prospects. When the mothers agreed on the selection, they talked to their husbands and left the arrangements up to the men for the exchanged betrothal gifts and dowry money, the marriage contract, and the setting of the date for the wedding ceremony and feast.

What did the young people involved have to say about the marriage? The boy had little to say. The girl had none. In most cases, the groom never saw his bride’s face or talked to her until after the wedding celebrations had ended. At which point, the groom brought his bride to his father’s home.

Under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, marriages for Armenian young people were also arranged – by the male members of the boy’s and girl’s families. Usually the girl’s father or older brother presented the boy’s proposal to the prospective bride who was likely no older than twelve years of age.

Unlike the Turkish girl, an Armenian girl could reject the proposal.

If the girl accepted the proposal, she could expect a visit from the boy’s mother. During the mother’s visit, she would give the girl’s home a white glove test. While the prospective bride wasn’t expected to know how to cook, she was expected to know how to clean a house. Only when the boy’s mother approved of the housekeeping skills of the prospective bride did the fathers of the two families complete the marriage arrangements.

Here, too, the bride and groom rarely saw each other until the wedding ceremony and feast. And at their conclusion, the groom took his bride to his parents’ home to live during the newlyweds’ first year of marriage.

This specific Armenian custom had a unique purpose. It was so the groom’s mother could teach the bride how to cook the groom’s food just the way he liked.

Not every Armenian girl was so fortunate to have her family arrange a marriage for her. Under Ottoman Turk rule, many Armenian girls were kidnapped, forced into Turkish or Kurdish harems, and coerced into converting to Islam.

Some girls were snatched from the streets or stolen from their homes. Fathers and brothers who dared to object to the kidnapping of their daughters or sisters were often killed. This was especially true, if the kidnappers were Kurdish Hamidiye.

With such a threat shadowing the Armenian young women of the early 1900s, I believe they usually welcomed the marriages arranged for them by their families.

As a North American woman, I can hardly fathom the limited choice under which Armenian girls or the total absence of options under which Turkish girls lived during the Ottoman Turkish Empire. It makes me wonder. If I had been a fourteen-year-old daughter in either type of household in 1914 or 1915, at what kind of straw would I have clutched?