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Damascus Public Baths (Hammams)

Public Baths were commonly used in Damascus as a civilized phenomena that denotes the interest of the Damascenes in their health, and cleanness of bodies. Going to the bath was a religious and social habit of life in the Orient in general and in Damascus in particular. Public baths were common in the city when houses of the past centuries did not have private baths, so men used to slip to the baths to wash their bodies and enjoy the services offered there for an hour or two, where as women changed this habit into a traditional social event linked to their social life.

With very limited means of entertainment in a closed society, women changed the visit to the bath into an opportunity to meet other women, and to deepen social relations. By time, public baths were linked to several social occasions like marriages, births, and preparations for feasts. Women used to spend long hours in the bath consuming all the time specified for them; usually from midday to the evening.

Damascus Baths:

Although Damascus baths were of different sizes, decorations and designs, their main structure was identical. They had three main sections, the lobby (frigidarium), the center and the Interior. Very few of them had an entrance and an interior only. A hammam visitor used to get into the lobby, which on both sides used to have two small rooms and two or more decks, several steps high, where customers can take off their clothes and receive towels and sheets to cover their bodies. Women used to bring all what they need from their homes. Decks usually are covered with carpets or kelims and had a fountain or two in the center surrounded by desks or chairs.

The central and interior sections, specified for washing, usually had small chambers on both sides, each one had two or more stone basins with water pouring in them from two taps for hot and cold water, with wooden corks to control the flow of water. The ground floor and walls usually covered with marble tiles, while the roofs were domed with several round openings closed with thick glass bulbs to allow sun light into the rooms. These two sections have no windows in order to keep temperature stable in the hammam all round the day.

Water was drawn to hammams through clay pipes to the boilers, to cold water taps and to the ponds inside. Each hammam had a main pipe that drives water from a nearby river or water source. Staff of the hammam usually consisted of the master who is usually the owner or lessee of the bath, aided by several workers; the receptionist who receives customers and offers them towels, soap,..etc, "al-

Mokayes" who usually rubs client bodies with a special woolen glove, the masseur, the waiter who serves hot and cold drinks, and the boiler operator who is in charge of heating water.

As for women, the same hierarchy is applied where the "supervisor" is the main coordinator of the activities of the staff which constitutes of the "qaymeh" who helps women in washing their bodies and the "ballaneh" i.e. the maid who serves towels and other necessary items to the customers and cleans the hammam.

Hammam traditions:

Hammam traditions start in the home by preparing "al-Bukcha", a large piece of embroidered textile in which women used to wrap their clean clothes to be used after bathing, the laurel soap bars, the sheets with which women wrap their bodies inside the bath, a special sheet usually placed on the ground to stand on and change clothes or towels. Some people used to prepare light meals to be consumed in the bath, and to arrange for a means of transportation, if the bath is far from the residence.

Once in the bath, the customer is received in the lobby section, changes his/her clothes and is escorted to the central section where the process of washing starts, then he moves to the interior to join the hot temperature chamber, be massaged and rubbed in what is now known as the peeling, and then moves again to the central section to wash his/her body with soap and mild water preparing to get out to the entrance to acclimatize with the natural temperature, and where he/she wears his /her clean clothes and have a drink. Really, going to the hammam is a pleasant event.

Visiting the bath was a real joy and a merry occasion. Children play on the marble hot ground, splash in the ponds, while their father or mother takes care of washing one of them after the other, to be sure that all of them had had the smell of perfumed soap.

Lunch meals in the hammam, although simple and light, were not less important and enjoyable than a rich banquet in a palace.

The number of hammams in Damascus varied according to the growth of population and degree of economic development. They, gradually increased, in number until they were 77 at the end of the 17th century AD. But with the advance of time and the appearance of private home baths, hammas started to decrease until they almost disappeared. Now, people of different classes and levels, realized the importance of public baths socially and economically, resumed going to public hammas to enjoy bathing and to revive an old tradition of the grandfathers and grandmothers, encouraged by many developments added to the hammam; such as steam parlors and Sauna. Many hammams have been restored and modernized to receive local people as well as tourists, who all agree that Damascene hammams are unique for their elegant buildings, clean interiors, abundance of water and good service. Try it and you will never forget it.

 

Haifaa Mafalani

 

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