19th Century Turkish Kina Gecesi
View from the Seraglio
View from Seraglio Point, late 19th century magazine illustration

"Home Life in Turkey" by Lucy M Garnett, New York, 1909
The Ottoman Lady: A Social History from 1718 to 1918, Fanny Davis, Greenwood Press

Lucy Garnett and Fanny Davis described their experiences traveling in Turkey in the late 19th century before modernization eclipsed henna and many other traditions.  Both describe Turkish marriage celebrations, including the night of the henna, the Kina Gecesi.

They both describe a sequence of marriage social events extending over a whole week, following the negotiations of an arranged marriage.  The bride was often very young, as marriage brokers, koulavous, watched the the public baths for girls who were at the onset of puberty having their first menstrual cycle, and were thus marriageable.  Familes with sons contracted them to find suitable girls, and they returned from the baths to say, "the xxx family has a daughter like a full moon, perfect for your handsome son." Other arrangements were through families and friends. When  the parents felt they had brokered a suitable match,  the daughters often had very little choice in the matter, and refusing their parents decisions was difficult. The eldest daughter was offered first, younger daughters afterwards. According to the reports of Gannett, Davis and others who were not used to the system of arranged marriages and critical of it,  state that girls who were not quickly snapped up during the ritual of cordiality, inspection, and brokering, suffered the lingering indignity of being called out for repeat performances  until at age twenty-something were considered a hopeless case and were no longer bothered. Indigenous perspectives on arranged marriages were more complex and positive.  The brokering often focused on emotional suitability, shared interests, economic advantage, and family connections: criterion similar to those used by modern dating services advertised on late night television to people who have limited acess to potential mates.

Women at home  The Old Turk
Women at home in Turkey, and Turkish father, late 19th century magazine illustration

Marriages happened, for better or for worse. Virtually every male and female was legally mated, and the unmarried were officially regarded with pity, contempt and suspicion. Though fathers grumbled about expense, weddings were Ottoman women’s favorite events, and mothers liked to show off their daughters in the best style possible.  They hired musicians, dancers, had feasts, and even threw coins into the street for beggars who gathered for a good marital extravaganza.  The celebration went on for a week until the bride was taken to her new husband's house..

During the night of the henna, while guests celebrated, musicians played and dancers swirled outdoors, the bride went into her home’s reception room for her henna. The henna paste was brought in on a tray, with candles placed in the henna.  The mother in law hennaed the bride’s right hand first, then her left hand, laying the henna on thick, and pressing a gold coin into it.  Then, each guest pressed a coin into the henna.   In poorer families, each guest put in the coin, then wrapped it over with gauze, both to cover the henna paste, and to mask any embarrassment they might feel over having less to offer than their neighbors.  The bride’s hennaed hands were completely wrapped, henna, coins and all, her mother in law slid silk embroidered bags over her hands.  Then, she hennaed the bride’s feet in the same way.   When the henna was finished, the musicians and dancers came into the reception room to perform bawdy night of the henna dances for the bride and entertain the harem.  The entertainers were all women, some with with penciled mustaches to pantomime male roles in the sexually instructive performance. 

The henna was not left in place overnight, because a red-orange stain was good luck.  Dark brown or blackish stains were bad luck. 

Interpreting the Henna Process

It would be reasonable that Garnett and Davis, foreign guests at a wedding celebration, would not have been invited to stand close to the bride and mother in law during the henna.  They are more likely to have observed this from a distance  They both describe putting the gold coin into the thick henna paste, and  the color of the stains the work was completed.  Other may be details missing from their description of the process.  If henna was applied as Rahime demonstrated for Arlene Brill, applying henna over cord resist, Garnet and Davis might not have seen that part of the process.   However, if it may be assumed that the wedding henna was comparable to  henna depicted in Turkish paintings of women,  then we can proceed to  reconstruct the wedding henna. 

Woman with an Oud  Another cat's cradle  filled with henna
Detail from "Circassian Slaves", 19th century lithograph by Allom
showing woman with hennaed hands, and proposed reconstruction of the thread cord resist technique.
Larger image of "Circassian Slaves" HERE

In paintings of Turkish women with henna, henna is depicted as being in broad patterns, bounded by straight lines, and some depictions show there was detail within the hennaed areas.  If henna is applied thickly and wrapped as described by Garnett and Davis, any straight line or pattern will smear, unless those lines are created with a  resist technique. The descriptions of bridal henna indicate that the henna was wrapped wet, because people were pressing coins into the henna.  Coins would fall off dry henna.  Bandage resist, such as is used in Mauritania, would be an effective resist for this, but surgical tape (adhesive bandage or sticking plaster) was not invented until 1922.   Dough resist would be easily dislodged by the coins. The most easily available and effective resist for Turkish bridal henna would have been cord or thread, just as Rahime did.  See: Turkish Village Henna: Cord Resist

 The painting above, a detail from "Circassian Slaves", a 19th century lithograph by Allom, shows henna from the same period as the verbal descriptions by Fanny Davis and Lucy Garnett.  The henna is in a clearly defined pattern, consistent with henna laid down over a cord resist as shown below. This pattern can be made quickly by winding, looping, and knotting cord around a hand, or sewing a piece of lace around the hand  This could be done quickly and firmly enough to would stay stable through the Kina Gecesi process of pressing in coins, wrapping and placing in  the silk bags!

Additional accounts of the Turkish Night of the Henna

Eski Istanbul:

The women of Turkey and their folklore.
Garnett  1890- 1891, v.2.

Thirty years in the harem:
Melek Hanim (Malik- Khanam) Chapman and Hall, 1872.

The People of Turkey 
Mrs. Fanny Janet Blunt

Turk Dugunleri: Kosay
The Seed and the Soil: Gender and Cosmology in Turkish Village Society,
Carol Delaney, University of California Press

Return to the Index of Turkish Henna

Tulips of Topkapi  Arabesque
Alex Morgan's Tulips of Topkapi
and Jessica McQueen's Arabesque
have beautiful henna patterns
adapted from Ottoman art! 
Available through TapDancing Lizard