TRIPOLI/SIDON, Lebanon: After a thorough steaming and rub-down, one
receives a deep massage before cooling off in another room, wrapped only
in a towel and sipping a cup of tea.
“There aren’t many hammams left,” laments Mustafa Satoot, recalling the
ancient bathhouses that drew leisure-seekers centuries before high-end
spas came along.
Satoot is manager of Al-Abed Hammam in Tripoli’s old city. “People love it here,” he says.
Satoot sits on a red handwoven carpet in the building’s ornately
designed reception area of marble tiles and arches, a fountain bubbling
beneath the high-domed ceiling. “It’s good for their body and spirit,”
Walking into the building, one is enveloped by the pleasant, musky odor
that emanates from a combination of old stone walls, sauna steam, olive
oil soaps and massage oil.
Lebanon boasts a growing number of exotic spa venues – offering
specialtytechniques from countries such as Thailand and Japan – but the
hammam retains a stubborn allure.
Some people value the hammam as a venue for socializing, while others
are drawn to its architecture and the relics of a bygone age.
Although centuries ago the hammams flourished, today only a handful
exist, with a few well-preserved examples operating as part of a museum –
as is the case with the bathhouse in Beiteddine Palace.
Hammams, also known as Turkish baths, have existed since Roman times,
but grew widespread with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the 10th
century, often built adjacent to mosques and palaces. Before indoor
plumbing, people would typically go to the local bathhouse once a week.
At the height of their popularity, there were thousands of hammams across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
Legend has it that at one point, Damascus alone had 365, one for each
day of the year. Today, fewer than 20 can be found in Syria’s capital.
In Cairo, Egypt, where 300 hammams once operated, only six remain.
Lebanon also had its share of hammams. But today, only four traditional
hammams are functional. Al-Abed in Tripoli and Nuzha in Beirut’s Zoqaq
al-Blat – both owned by Anis Bayraqdar, a longtime Syrian resident of
Beirut – are open every day of the year. In Sidon’s old city, Al-Ward
and Al-Sheikh are fully operational, but close during the summer due to
the heat and humidity.
Satoot, of Tripoli’s Al-Abed Hammam, is proud of keeping one of
Lebanon’s last remaining bathhouses running. Once a year, he hires
experts from Aleppo and Damascus – two cities that still have thriving
hammams – to thoroughly clean the old stone tiles.
Down the street from Al-Abed stands the once the grand Nouri Hammam,
now hidden away behind mud and stone walls and accessible only through a
Inside, shattered marble tiles litter the floor, with light from the
windows of the dome ceiling providing the only relief from the gloom.
Less than a minute’s walk away, in an open area of Tripoli’s old city,
is the Ezzedine Hammam, fronted by a metal rod gate for as long as local
residents can remember.
Talal Osman, who runs a bakery next door to the hammam, says he knows
its history only from stories told by his grandmother, who would go
there with her friends when it was a bathhouse for women.
“Now, it’s just used as a garbage dump,” he says in helpless frustration.
Osman once complained to the local municipality about the mounting pile
of trash, but to no avail. He blames the government for not taking care
of Tripoli’s old monuments, which he believes could be a great tourist
attraction if restored to their former glory.
May Telmissany, author of “The Last Hammams of Cairo,” is also saddened
by the deterioration of hammams in the region, which she attributes to
lack of government attention to heritage sites.
“The buildings are collapsing, and we’re trying to save the six
remaining hammams [in Cairo] by raising awareness,” says Telmissany, who
was inspired to write her book after seeing a collection of photos of
Egypt’s old hammams. “They should be considered historic monuments.”
In addition to the gradual deterioration of the buildings themselves,
Telmissany laments the loss of the culture of the hammam, a unique place
of same-gender bonding and openness, and an oasis of calm where bathers
could escape the hustle and bustle of city life. She bemoans the fact
that today this legacy has been reduced to a “folkloric attraction,”
preserved mainly through museums and old films.
Telmissany points out that historically, hammams were often “the only
place for women to socialize and share their experiences, and be free
with their bodies, and free from social norms and different classes. Now
we’re losing it. The practice needs revival.”
Today, the only countries in the region where the hammam culture can
still be found, albeit in diminished form, are Syria, Turkey, Tunisia
High-end hammams, however, are opening in Canada. And they are using
traditional loofa sponges as well as oil extracted from argan trees
native to Morocco and Algeria (and now being grown in Israel).
Back at Al-Abed Hammam, Abudi Naime, a regular customer who comes with
his friends at least once a month, is kicking back. Wrapped in a towel
in the bathhouse’s reception area, clean and radiant after a two-hour
steam, massage and scrub-down, he says the hammam is the perfect place
He could use the relaxation; tomorrow, he’s getting married.