Lake Victoria is a huge fresh water basin that lies in between Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. For over 500,000 years, rainfall and thousands of small streams gathered here and flowered northwards through the White Nile river. After 4,000 kilometers, the river is joined by the Blue Nile. Together they form the Nile, which flows through Egypt and north onwards into the Mediterranean Sea — where the water evaporates and spreads all over the world, to start its cycle all over again.
And it’s in this area that some 6,000 years ago many tribes settled, fleeing the rapid desertification of North Africa. The Sahara started to take shape and Egypt became increasingly drier, but the banks of the Nile provided a lifeline. Initially these were very different tribes, but through generations lineages disappeared, as tribes among each other exchanged men and women, their offspring belonging to the both of them.
These early Egyptians were monogamous, and developed their own rites. To signal the event of the marriage, reeds from the banks of the Nile were braided and turned into a perfect circle, the symbol of eternity. These rings of reed were worn on the fourth finger on the left hand, because the Egyptians believed that this finger contained a vein that was directly connected to the heart (thousands of years later, this proved to be a myth). Through marriage in early Egypt, not just individuals and families were united; it was in fact marriage that unified Egypt, when 4,000 years ago, Neithhotep, a princess of Lower-Egypt, married with Narmer, who ruled the North.
The Egyptians saw life as something that began over and over again, much like to the cycle of water. Every year around the same time, the Nile flooded its banks and provided irrigation for the fields. Fed by the Nile and protected by the deserts, the Egyptians were largely closed off from the rest of the world. They had little desire to explore or conquer new areas, and given their time in history, they produced few technological advancements. In many ways the Egyptian culture was perfect, as it lasted an astonishing 3,000 years.
Yet at the start of the first millennium, decades of power struggles had left Egypt weakened, and it was easily overrun by the Macedonians, led by Alexander the Great. Another 300 years later, Emperor Augustus took absolute control, and Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.
Egypt served the Roman Empire as its major producer of grain, and Roman culture became part of Egyptian civilisation. But the influence worked both ways. Egypt was hugely influential to Rome. Not only was it by far the wealthiest province of the Roman Empire except for Italia, also its capital Alexandria was the biggest city after Rome. The Roman Empire absorbed the Egyptian gods into their culture, and embraced in particular Isis, the goddess of fertility and love. Well-off Romans choose to be mummified, and Egyptian motifs became commonplace in mosaics and murals.
The Romans also adopted the tradition of the wedding rings, but added their own twists. They professionalised the marriage and made laws for it. Parental consent became a requirement, as well as a minimum age of 12 for girls, and 14 for boys. The wedding rings served as more than a symbol of love. It proved men’s ownership of their wife, and it showed a contract between the couple and their families. Instead of reeds, the Romans intended for wedding rings to last a lifetime and used metals such as iron. And as techniques became more refined, rings became more intricate throughout the centuries. Gold replaced iron, texts and motifs were added, as were precious gemstones.
The Roman Empire was at its largest in the year 117, when it span from West-Europe to the Middle East and covered North-Africa. It wasn’t just Egyptian cultured that was absorbed. From the province Judea — today’s Israel and Palestine — Christianity was born from Judaism. Men in power like Paul of Tarsis made sure it became an easy religion, stripping away lots of Jewish traditions, while adopting existing ones from other cultures. As such, Christianity required baptising instead of circumcision — and it was the first religion that wasn’t an ethnic one: anybody could be a Christian. Plus, there were the wedding rings.
The new religion blossomed in these centuries, when the Roman Empire went through relative peace. Using trade and travel networks, and the free exchanges of ideas, Christianity quickly spread to the Roman provinces Syria, Egypt and Anatolia — today’s Turkey. In the year 380, the Roman Empire made Christianity its official state religion.
But a century later, the empire started to crumble. The Eastern Roman Empire, also named the Byzantine Empire, lasted for another millennium, but the Western Roman Empire quickly fractured further and plunged Western-Europe into the Medieval period, with economic and population decline, and rapid de-urbanisation. Christianity, not tied to a nation, survived — and so did the wedding rings, alongside the preachings of Jesus.
While Christianity prospered in a fractured Europe, the Islamic religion — without any wedding ring ceremonies — united North Africa and the Middle East. Another area clear of wedding rings was China in the east. For millennia the Chinese dynasties had succeeded each other, and as a massive territory China had developed its own culture and rites.
This balance of power was largely held for a millennium, but the citizens of the world are like the early Egyptian settlers, our planet being our Nile delta. In the 18th and 19th century, Europe produced the Enlightenment and Renaissance, and with new ideas and modern science, it slowly started to secularise, separating religion and state. The wedding and the exchange of rings which for centuries had fed on Christianity like a parasite, split from its host and took place in many European cultures. Worldwide interaction began — and for better or worse —as trading and colonisation began. Cultures influenced each other, and like the early Egyptian tribes, previous lineages disappeared through generations.
Today, some communities still have their distinct marriage rites. The Amish only allow married men to grow a beard, and Ashkenazi Jews have their men wear a tallit shawl upon marriage. Married Hindu women wear necklaces or braces, as well as a dot (bindi) or stripe (sindoor) on their face. But across the world; wedding rings, often gold, have become common place — even though the Koran forbids wearing gold for men.
Wedding ring fashion has been a long and slowly changing one. Some centuries preferred highly decorative ring — to show off wealth. Other centuries mandated simple designs — showing frugality. Diamonds were occasionally used in the second millennium, but are now common, thanks to the very successful marketing slogan by De Beers, ‘A Diamond is Forever’. Even habits changed. It was common for only women to wear a wedding ring, but during the Second World War, many overseas United States soldiers wore a simple wedding ring as a sign of their commitment to their wives at home. This tradition continued throughout the Korean War, and eventually it became popular among United States civilians too. People wear gold, silver or even wooden rings, or tattoo them on their skin — but regardless of their forms, wedding rings are common around the world.
And this is how history teaches how arbitrary our traditions are, how mere coincidences in time shaped them. It’s a powerful lesson, because when you realise that inherently not a single value or tradition is fixed, and that they’re all shaped by random events, then you can set yourself free from them and start to imagine alternative futures — better ones. Think about how we abolished colonisation and slavery — because they didn’t really make that much sense. Religion is equally crumbling now, because we’ve come to learn the full story through history.
And wedding rings are arbitrary too. You can marry a Chinese woman in the Netherlands, and both not a second though about why you’re placing rings around each others fingers. Why would a piece of metal around a finger be meaningful? Sure, they have functionalities such as signalling the status of a relationship — or for some to show off wealth — but this can also be done in other ways. The tradition of the rings is mostly ceremonial, given eloquence through millennia of use. With the rings my wife and I choose, we’re continuing a rite that can be traced back to another time and place — far away from The Hague, long ago from the 9th of May, 2018. Fed by Lake Victoria and growing on the banks of the Nile, the reeds were braided into rings, thousands of years ago by ancient Egyptians — they now unite a Dutch husband and Chinese wife, too.
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