Damascus, Asharq Al-Awsat—Ahmed works as a masseur at a Damascus hammam (bathhouse), and he and a tea boy—who insisted on serving us steaming cups of the beverage—are the last two workers to have remained at the premises. With an expression saddened by seeing the empty chambers of the hammam, where he has worked for 30 years, Ahmed explained: “There were 11 workers in this place before the start of the incidents [Syrian uprising], and we received dozens of bathers every day.” Now, he says, they wait for days for a single customer to turn up.
“The few workers to have remained in other hammams in Damascus say the same, recalling the days when these baths were swarming with local residents and tourists,” Ahmed added.
One of the sons of Mowaffaq Al-Hammami, the late owner of a number of hammams, including the renowned Nureddin bath, spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the dire state of the industry.
“In 1976 my father invested in this place [Nureddin] after the Antiquities Authority restored it to its original condition,” he said. “Since then, the bath became a prominent tourist and cultural destination for a large number of bathers. Up until the start of the crisis three years ago, numerous ambassadors used to bathe here on a regular basis.” He boasted that kings and presidents, including the King of Bahrain and former US Secretary of State James Baker, visited the baths, which date back to the 12th century CE.
“Because the number of local bathers who could come at night decreased, we had to close the place at 9:00 pm.” Hammami said they never used to shut their doors in the past, remaining open day and night.
“Our bath and other baths have been greatly affected by the soaring fuel prices, because baths work on diesel [for heating the water] which has witnessed a fourfold price increase in the past two years,” he said. Other essentials such as soap, sponges and towels have all experienced a threefold price hike, further increasing the economic burden on hammam owners.
But Hammami is determined to stay open for business. “We will remain steadfast,” he said, smiling. “This has been the profession of our fathers and forefathers for almost 100 years. Because we love this job, and because we are concerned about it in the same way that we are concerned about our own sons.”
“We are convinced that by closing the doors the baths would become lifeless, and so we decided to leave our doors open to keep them alive. If we receive only one customer, or just a visitor who does not come to bathe but to tour the place, they would also be welcome,” he said.
Nearly 1,300 years ago, when the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid Ibn Abd Al-Malik decided to construct the Umayyad mosque, he addressed Damascenes by saying: “Inhabitants of Damascus, four things give you a marked superiority over the rest of the world: your climate, your water, your fruits and your baths. To these I wanted to add a fifth: this mosque.” Al-Walid was well aware of what the public baths meant to the Syrians, and how the people took great pride in the institution, best expressed in their maxim “Hammam is life’s only bliss.”
Since then the city’s baths have lost some of their gleaming appeal as they have fallen into disrepair or have been demolished to make way for coffeehouses and shops. The number of bathhouses shrank from 160 during Al-Walid’s era to only 25 baths today. The majority of the hammams are situated within the Old City walls, with a few others scattered around the surrounding historical neighborhoods such as Al-Maydan, Al-Salhiya and Sarouja.
In the decade before unrest swept across Syria, the hammam scene experienced a revival as Syrians revisited old customs and tourists flooded into the city. The younger generation took jobs at the baths, receiving customers with soap, sponges and a pumice stone.
There was renewed international interest in the baths, and in 2009 the Institut français du Proche-Orient (French Institute for the Near East) organized a symposium in Damascus on the history of the public baths from antiquity to the present day.
Today, the baths lie empty and abandoned. Some have closed their doors until further notice, and most have had to lay off staff. But some keep their doors open just to say to passersby: You are welcome, because the bath without you is a lifeless stone.