The ancient Persian wedding custom goes modern

Weddings are steeped in tradition, but where do those rituals come from? The Traditions column explores the origins of different wedding customs from around the world.

From the time Mandana Ansari was a little girl, she knew she wanted to learn about her Iranian heritage by having a Sofra Aghad on her wedding day. “I have always loved the symbolism and meaning of the trip – new life, new beginnings, fertility,” Ms. Ansari said. “My culture is a huge part of who I am.”

The literal meaning of “safar” is “traditional spread,” said Mitra Kahramani, creative director and founder of Designs by Mitra, a wedding planning firm that specializes in Sofreh Aghd designs and multicultural celebrations. Ms. Ghahramani added that the word “agd” means “connection and interdependence” as a knot.

Mitra Ghahramani, who immigrated to the United States 26 years ago, comes from three generations of creative designers from Iran. At Designs by Mitra, she said she is able to “actively engage with my heritage and contribute to the preservation and enhancement of Persian traditions” that can be passed on to future generations.

Ms. Ghahramani said that an agd tablecloth traditionally referred to a large white tablecloth placed on the floor to form a sacred space for the union. It is often decorated with elaborate linens featuring gold and silver trim, lace, and silk.

“Sofra Agd refers to the traditional Persian wedding ceremony where Sharia marriage usually takes place,” she said. “The couple sits in front of a dining table decorated with symbolic objects intended to bless the newlyweds.”

The ritual often involves a bride and groom sitting at the head of a sofra agd, a ceremonial table covered with objects that have symbolic meanings, surrounded by family and friends.

The couple often faces a large mirror and a lit candlestick, which represents their hopes for a promising future together. Mrs. Ghahramani said, “The mirror reflects light and clarity of mind, and fire symbolizes purity and energy that represents a bright future for the newlyweds.” “During the ceremony, the newlyweds must see each other’s faces in the mirror’s reflection to ensure a bright future ahead.”

The spread features a wide range of symbolic elements, such as honey and fruits, such as pomegranate and apple, for a happy future; nuts and gold coins of abundance; eggs symbolize fertility; spices to ward off evil and represent the spice of life; needle and thread to signify two families becoming one; and a holy book of faith, hope, and God’s protection.

The origins of Sofar Agde are unclear, but experts have a few theories.

“It may have Zoroastrian roots, but we only have descriptions of the ceremony starting in the nineteenth century,” said Willem Fleur, author of Sofra: The Art of the Persian Ceremony and a Dutch historian who studies Persian culture. “It is very likely that this tradition has undergone changes since its inception and also had regional variants.”

While Iranian weddings vary according to ethnicity, culture, and religion, some couples include Sofra Aghd in their weddings at the request of their parents, while others do so because they wish to connect with their heritage. For partners who come from different backgrounds, Ms. Ghahramani said, “There is a strong desire to share their culture and heritage with each other and with their loved ones.”

As a Persian woman born in France and raised in San Francisco, Ms. Ansari, 38, knew she didn’t want the typical Aghad trip. “I wanted to personalize it,” Ms. Ansari said. “A mid-century modern take in pastel colors—our party was a great mix of Western and Persian cultures.”

Ms. Ansari is a full-time content creator. Founder of Modern Girl Media, a marketing agency and founding member of the Iranian Diaspora, a nonprofit organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of Iranians.

On May 26, 2022, she married Brian Jensen at the New York City clerk’s office. Mr. Jensen, 38, is a native New Yorker and Emmy-nominated filmmaker who worked on the HBO documentary Welcome to Chechnya.

The courtroom wedding was just a warm-up to honor the couple’s love affair with New York City. The main celebration took place in Cancun, Mexico, on June 26, 2022. That was when Ms. Ansari finally got her dream trip to Agd.

She chose headpieces designed by women artists, including a feathered mirror made in Spain. Instead of a Koran or Bible, she showed an old book from 1786 full of French love poems, including works by the Persian poets Rumi and Hafez.

“Since I was born in France, this felt more authentic,” Ms. Ansari said. “He is our love and our union, so I want him to represent us.”

Sofreh Aghds often include many other wedding rituals such as the Sugar Veil blessing ceremony, where a piece of lace cloth is draped over the heads of the bride and groom and two large lumps of sugar are slowly rubbed together, creating a mist of sugar dust symbolizing the “sweetening” of the couple’s life together. Married women usually perform the ritual, but Ms. Ansari instead chose women she admired — including single women.

“The tradition is that only happily married women can grind sugar on the heads of the newlyweds, to bless them with the wisdom and wealth they have accumulated over the years,” said Ms. Ghahramani. “But more and more, I’m seeing modern twists in this tradition.”

Ultimately, Sofra Aghad should create a supportive and harmonious atmosphere for the couple, Ms. Ghahramani said. “All elements of a Persian wedding are designed to promote an atmosphere of love, light, sweetness and happiness with the aim of surrounding the couple with positive energy as they embark on their journey together,” she said. “That, to me, is the magic of this celebration.”