The Baths of Damascus
The Romans were the first to introduce the bath to Syria. These baths were building complexes consisting of a medium heated room (Tepidarium), hot steam room (Caldarium), and room of cold plunge pool (Frigidarium).
In some instances other sections such as the changing room (Apodyterium), reading room and sports arena were added to the complex1. Bathing in these centres was restricted to the rich and political elite of the Roman society.
Islamic Syria inherited the tradition of using the bath and was given special promotion because of Islam's emphasis on cleanliness, hygiene and good health. Socially, the bath was given a high position, emphasised by the Quran and Hadith, in the daily and weekly activities of the society. Cleanliness, under Islam, is a religious duty to be performed daily by the believer in his ablution for the five daily prayers. Another bathing every Friday morning is very strongly recommended2. Allah (God) established this in the Quran: "Indeed, God loves those who turn to Him constantly, and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean" (Quran: 2:222). The Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) confirmed this in his saying "cleanliness is half the faith"3. As a consequence the bath, (Hammam) was actively promoted by the elaboration of its design, décor and ornamentation. Hammams, especially under the Mamluk and Ottoman rules, exceeded other buildings in their rich design and luxurious decorations. They were furnished with beautiful fountains and decorative pools.
The Damacian hammam shares the general features of the Muslim bath, which is made of a combination of an adaptation of the elaborate design of the Romans, without the cold swimming pool, and the Muslim cultural and bathing tradition. The spatial structure contains three main sections maintained at progressively higher temperatures
Al-Barrani consists of a large covered court accommodating a beautiful dome preceded with a number of glass stained windows. Its centre is furnished with fountains and decorated pool (s). The Damascenes spend much of their talent on lavishly decorating the walls of Al-Barrani with elegant tiles of dazzling colours, reflecting mirrors, and calligraphy plates welcoming clients and citing Arabic proverbs. Along the walls individual mattresses accompanied by a set of multicoloured towels, are systematically laid out to welcome the clients (figure 1). It is here where they get ready to proceed to other sections of the bath and where they retire after bathing. With their friendly nature, the owner and his staff exchange with bathers jokes, stories and news, and distribute warm drinks of mint tea and coffee as well as refreshing cool drinks.
The Al-Wastani (Tepidarium) is the intermediate section of the complex between the rest room and the steam room. It is usually a rectangular area, like a corridor, of medium temperatures containing benches where bathers could seat to prepare to enter the steam room or the rest room. It is usually vaulted and equipped with small circular apertures of glass, called Qamaria, providing light without losing heat. The Al-Wastani is also equipped with a small room (maqsurah Al-Noura) for shaving hair.
The Al-Jawwani (caldarium) is the hot steam room consisting of a large area with two iwans separated by a corridor leading to the fire room. Under its floor runs the hot water from the boiler towards the bathing pools. It is usually covered with tiles made of materials that transmit and support high temperatures such as Basalt. To create steam, cold water is usually thrown on these hot tiles as well as running it from the cold tap into the hot bathing pools around which the bathers gather. These are located in the corners of the two iwans (figure 2). To cater for private bathing a number of small individual rooms called Maqsuras are supplied. The roof of Al-Jawwani is usually decorated with Muqarnas stucco ending with domes with Qamarias In addition to bathing with hot water, special massage is administered here.
Hammams were socially promoted to help spread the cleanliness among the Muslim populations. This appreciation can be seen in various ways, notably in the number of books which dealt with the manners of bathing as well as in the religious laws, which discipline the act of bathing4. The list of such works is not exhaustive but one can refer to Aba Ishaq Ibrahim ben Ishaq al-Harby (d. 864 AD), Abd Al-Karim ben Mohammed Al-Samaani (d.1141 AD), Muhammed Ben Abd-Allah al-Shibly (d1291 AD) and Muhammed Ali ben Hamza (d. 1344 AD) and others, all of whom wrote about the manners of using the Hammam5.
The Hammam plays an important role in the social activities of the Muslim community. It is an intimate space for interaction of various social groups. Groups consisting of friends, neighbours, relatives or workers regularly undertake this ritual in a partying atmosphere. The group strengthens the bonds between its members and allows them to make contact with other groups or individuals. This ritual is carried out by both sexes although in separate timing; women usually in day light and men in the evening and night. Traditionally, the Hammam plays a significant role in marrying people. In conservative communities such as those of North Africa, women who are looking for suitable brides for their sons would go to the Hammam for this purpose. They are given a good opportunity to have a, closer, look at the bride to be and select the best physically fit. However, this tradition is gradually losing its popularity as arranged marriages, in these societies, are becoming increasingly rare. It is also customary, in many parts of the Muslim world, for the new bride to be taken, with her friends, to the Hammam where she is prepared, groomed and applied the Henna6. The groom is also escorted, at night, there before he meets his bride.
In addition to being one of special types of Muslim architecture widely appreciated and liked by non-Muslim visitors, the Hammam provides a unique social milieu for Muslim communities. It is the origin of most of health and fitness clubs and retreat centres spread in the modern world. Regular bathing and shaving are today believed to improve the well being of the body and to eliminate bad smells. Sweating and good body perspiration flush of impurities and help loose the fat. The steam and hot water increase blood circulation and raise the pulse and metabolic rate. The relaxation in the Al-Barrani lets the body rest and benefit from all the previous exercises. The social interaction and the friendly atmosphere considered to have a number of psychological benefits as well. In these conditions one can clearly see that modern health and fitness clubs and sauna centres are not but a modern translation of the meaning and function of the Muslim Hammam.
1 Fikret Yegül (1992) `Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity' The Architectural History Foundation, New York.
2 Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: Allah's Apostle (pbuh) said, "The taking of a bath on Friday is compulsory for every adult Muslim." Al-Boukhari Volume 2, Book 13, Number 4:
3 See Sahih Muslim Book 002, Chapter 1, Merit of Wudu, Hadith Number 0432
4 In a hadith cited by Abu Dawud that Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-'As Narrated: The Prophet (pbuh) said: "After some time the lands of the non-Arabs will be conquered for you, and there you will find houses called hammamat (hot baths). So men should not enter them (to wash) except in lower garments, and forbid the women to enter them except a sick or one who is in a child-bed". Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 31, Number 4000.
5 These references were listed by Al-Hamimy Al-Kawakby (1986)
`Gardens of Nammam kalam concerning the Hammam', realisation, Abd Allah Muhammed al-Habashi, Yemeni House for publication and distribution, edition 2, 1986.
6 Herbal paste once applied leaves red/brown colour. It is usually applied for hair colouring as well as hand and feet decorating.
by: FSTC Limited, Sun 26 January, 2003