Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
28 Dec. 2000 - 3 Jan. 2001
Issue No.514
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Steamy concessions

By Pascale Ghazaleh

Pascale Ghazaleh A well-known Arabic proverb states that al-nadhafa min al-iman -- cleanliness is next to Godliness. Another, less known, describes a situation of chaos or bedlam as being zayy al-hammam al-maqtu'a mayyitu -- like a bathhouse with the water cut off. The implicit dichotomy -- on one hand water, cleanliness, faith, order and harmony; on the other, the confounding of expectations (what use, to bathers, is a public bath where no water runs?), disorder, the reversal of an established order -- is an apt illustration of Cairo's hammams (public baths), and the sorry fate they have met.

THE BEAUTY OF BATHING: Chroniclers mention hammams among a town's ancient claims to pre-eminence. In the Thousand and One Nights tale of Abu Sir and Abu Qir, it is said that "Your city is not perfect unless it has a hammam." J Sourdel-Toumine's article "Hammam" in the Encyclopedia of Islam enlightens us further: the "ritual use of the hammam in the performance of the major ablution explains why it has always been considered one of the essential amenities of the Muslim city..., while at the same time the life of a whole quarter revolved around it."

The hammam, therefore, was central to both this life and the next, religious worship and secular sociability. Nor -- pace the venerable Encyclopedia -- was this role characteristic of the "Muslim city," whatever that may have been, for bathing seems to have been an interconfessional activity. In 1723, reports historian André Raymond, the chief of the Janissaries (one of the military corps established in Egypt) edicted that Christians and Jews were to wear a bell around their necks while at the hammam; the guild of bathkeepers, anxious to forestall the harm this would do to business, hastened to offer him a generous gift, whereupon the order was repealed.

A BATH FOR EVERY CITIZEN: Despite the hammam's significance as an institution central to city life, however, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, urban planner and chronicler Ali Pasha Mubarak was already deploring its decline. Remarking that the Caliph Al-Mu'izz Lidin Allah was the first to build public baths in Cairo, and that there were 1,500 baths in Fustat at the city's apogee, he continued: "It appears from the writings of the French that the number of bathhouses that still existed in their time [between 1798 and 1801] exceeded one hundred. Now, there are no more than 55 bathhouses in Cairo..., and considering the expansion the city has undergone, and the increase in its population, this is very little." Nor was it the architectural and historical loss that Mubarak mourned: "Public health requires that their number be increased," he cautioned, "for if we compare the number of bathhouses to the total population, we find that there was a bath for every 2,600 people at the beginning of the twelfth century [of the Hijra, i.e. the end of the eighteenth century CE]. In our time, there is only one bathhouse for every 7,000 people..."

Raymond, on the other hand, estimates that a total of 77 hammams is a more plausible figure for eighteenth-century Cairo. Three centuries before, the chronicler Al-Maqrizi had "listed only 47, distributed throughout a zone that was, it is true, far less extensive than Ottoman Cairo." Although the Ottomans did build public baths, then -- albeit proportionately few given the expansion of the city -- the hammam was to witness a slow decline after their time. Traveller E W Lane, in his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, estimated that there were 60 to 70 hammams in Cairo toward 1830; a century later, Edmond Pauty, author of the seminal Les Hammams du Caire, was able to identify and visit only 50.

The distribution of hammams within the city, Raymond argues, suggests that "frequenting public baths seems to have been a behavioural trait characteristic of the 'middle classes' (artisans and merchants), since the wealthy had private baths." This is hardly the case today. As Hagg Zeinhom Abdel-Aziz, owner of Hammam Margoush, says, "we only get workers, or very elderly people, or those who come for medical reasons, like weight loss."

Hammam Margoush takes its name from the street on which it stands, Amir Al-Guyush (long ago contracted, in popular usage, to Margoush) -- the commander-in-chief, a reference to Badr Al-Gamali. It is also known as Hammam Al-Malatili, a name adopted by Ismail Waliyyeddin as the title of his novel detailing some of the variously illicit activities said to take place in the hammams. (Cinema buffs, however, may be surprised to learn that the eponymous film was actually shot in another hammam altogether.)

Al-Malatili has been in Hagg Zeinhom's family for over 200 years, he says. Although it is technically private property, it is registered with the Supreme Council for Antiquities, so he cannot carry out any modifications without a permit. On the day of our visit, a worker was busy repairing one of the domes with red brick. Heavy rain had brought down a portion of the structure, made principally of qusrmill, a building material in which ash from the hammam's furnace was the main ingredient. Qusrmill is no longer used, however -- and here lies one key to the precipitous decline of Hammam Al-Malatili and its erstwhile neighbours.

Far top: Hammam Bab Al-Bahr; above, Hammam Al-Malatili
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE: In theory, the water used by the hammam is heated by furnaces into which detritus from the surrounding area is packed at the end of each day. The quarter's inhabitants also placed cauldrons of fuul on the roof of the furnace, where they were left to cook all night. The hammam is thus meant to play a pivotal role in the life of the quarter, linking the preparation of food and the elimination of waste material -- or, to put it more dramatically, symbolising consumption in both its forms.

According to Hagg Zeinhom, however, former Cairo Governor Salah Dessouqi banned the burning of refuse and ordered hammam owners to use wood and sawdust in fuelling their furnaces instead. His successor, Omar Abdel-Akher, cited environmental concerns in forbidding the use of wood, and decreed that thenceforth, gas was to be used in its place. The organic link between a hammam and the neighbourhood in which it is located was severed in this way. Hagg Zeinhom says sadly: "In the days of the Mamelukes, there were 365 bathhouses in Cairo: one for every day of the year. Today, only eight remain."

Gas, it is true, is more expensive than garbage, so the ban could have cut quite deeply into hammam owners' profits. Yet as archaeologist Medhat El-Minabbawi, SCA director of the eastern Cairo sector, remarks: "You can't stop them from burning garbage, you know. Who's to say what goes into the furnace?" There are, it is true, other reasons for the hammam's decline. One is that most homes in the area now have immediate access to running water, further diminishing the importance of the hammam's primary function. Another is that land prices are sufficiently high, and regulations pertaining to monuments sufficiently strict, that many property owners in the area are tempted to sell what they can as fast as possible.

The bathhouse of Sultan Qalaoun, also known as Hammam Al-Nahhasin (the Coppersmiths' Bath) is one example of precarious survival: recently bought by one Hagg Hamama, owner of a shop selling brass knickknacks that immediately abuts the bath, it was registered immediately before the demolition workers were scheduled to move in.

Hammam Qalaoun takes one of its names from the coppersmiths' market that surrounds it, the other from the hospital of Sultan Qalaoun next to which it stands. According to Pauty, it originally dated from the Fatimid period. It is, therefore, certainly worthy of attention, although no one seems sure, today, whether any elements of the original structure remain. But how long can a building endure when it plays so marginal a part in its neighbourhood's life? The only value of the hammams, according to their owners, is the price of the land on which they stand.

Even that, however, is fairly low. Hammam Bishtak (located on Suq Al-Silah Street, opposite the southwestern corner of the ruined mosque of Mir Zada), which at 1,150 square metres is vast compared to most of Cairo's other baths, is said to be going for around LE1 million. While only the façade is registered with the SCA, the bath's general layout has not changed since the Amir Seifeddin Bishtak commissioned its construction, shortly before his death in 1341.

This is true for most of the hammams still extant today: they required a very specific infrastructure meeting conditions such as space, heating and access to an abundant supply of running water, and were built on such carefully chosen sites that their replacement by a building serving other functions would not have been profitable enough to justify the expenses incurred by demolition and reconstruction. The location of these bathhouses can also be explained by "purely religious concerns," as Raymond remarks; for instance, a sultan who commissioned the construction of a mosque often wished to guarantee that it would benefit from stable revenues such as those accruing from a pious endowment, and hammams were seen as the natural corollary of mosques given the need for ablution before prayer.

Clockwise from top: the maslakh of Hammam Al-Nahhasin; the portal of Hammam Bishtak; Ingres's fleshy fantasies; the maghtas in Hammam Bab Al-Bahr; the doorway of Hammam Al-Sultan Inal
(photos: Randa Shaath and Sherif Sonbol)
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE: Hammam Al-Sultan Inal, built in 1456, could soon be another victim of the struggle between time and money. Situated next to the Madrasa Kamiliya, it is locked today. During one visit, the ominous sound of rushing water emanated from inside, indicating that a pipe had burst, or a tap been left on inadvertently. Two days later, SCA employees at Bishtak Palace, around the corner, intimated that they would be able to open the door; but repeated assaults upon the vast padlock, involving a veritable arsenal of keys, proved fruitless. The gushing sound continued unabated; by then, a patch of water could be glimpsed seeping out from beneath the door. Eventually, the employees suggested that the tenant had given the key to "the company in charge of restoring the hammam."

Contacted by telephone, the tenant, Mohi Mustafa Ahmed, denied this adamantly. "No one is restoring the hammam," he said. "I was renting it from the Ministry of Awqaf [Endowments] for LE500 a month. It wasn't worth the trouble, though. I wasn't making anything, so I turned it over to the SCA." Ahmed, who owns two other hammams in the neighbourhood, complained that he had been unable to make any modifications to Hammam Inal. "I would request permission to repair things, but it took two or three years to process them every time. There are no possibilities for improvement." Still, Ahmed admitted that the domes and hot basins had been repaired during the time of his tenancy.

"It's a pity," he concluded. "I could have turned it into a spa, with a sauna, a gymnasium -- the works." The SCA does not seem to have welcomed this initiative, however. As El-Minabbawi explains, "95 per cent of hammams belong to the Ministry of Awqaf. Endowments are supposed to bring in revenue -- but this is often at the expense of a monument's architectural value. There are encroachments, because the ministry can rent out space along a wall to shopkeepers, for instance; or it can sell a roof."

STEAM UNTIL DONE: Ahmed's idea is not such a bad one, though, especially since the baths are, after all, the precursors of today's health resorts.

From travellers' descriptions -- apparently the only source of information on the matter, since indigenous commentators would have found it both superfluous and inappropriate to recount the different steps of the bathing process -- it seems that a fairly standard procedure was followed. Visitors usually left their valuables with the bathkeeper before entering the maslakh (literally, abattoir or slaughterhouse, from salakha, to flay or skin). Here they undressed; in cool weather, they proceeded to an inner apartment, the beit awwal or first chamber, before removing their garments and wrapping themselves in several towels. Then they could move to the "veritable centre of the hammam," as Pauty describes it: the beit al-harara, or hot room. Here, the bather would begin to perspire profusely from the steam, whereupon the operator of the baths could begin his work. Known as the mukayyisati (from kis, the rough cloth used in exfoliation), this attendant, the inimitable Lane recounts, "cracks almost every joint of [the bather's] frame: he wrings the body, first one way and then the other, to make several of the vertebrae crack; even the neck is made to crack twice, by wrenching the head round each way, which produces a sensation rather alarming to an inexperienced person; and each ear is generally twisted around until it cracks."

After this enjoyable massage, the bather was scrubbed meticulously, and could then take a dip in one of the tanks of hot water. A vigourous soaping ensued; rinsed off, the bather could emerge once more to the beit awwal for refreshments in the form of food, coffee and a pipe.

These activities -- or rather the homoerotic connotations of communal bathing -- were a source of endless fascination to Orientalist writers and painters. A work titled Le Bain turc, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, provides a particularly instructive illustration of the theme. As Rana Kabbani notes, the painting, which shows 26 women "sampling the various pleasures of a fantastic Turkish bath," transforms the unsuspecting viewer into a Peeping Tom: its round shape, which picks up "the roundness of breasts, bellies, thighs depicted within... also evokes the roundness of a scene as perceived through the round aperture of a keyhole. This voyeurism is an intrinsic part of the painting, for the onlooker has been presented with a means of gazing into a forbidden East. He enters a world of sexual abandon; he sees without being seen."

While sexual abandon does not seem to be on the agenda, those who hope to promote tourism by adapting the Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman monuments of Cairo to the expectations of foreign visitors could consider including hammams on the usual circuit. Perhaps a measure of gentrification is the only way to save the public bathhouses -- especially if it does not entail the elimination of the hammams' characteristic architectural features in favour of the white marble treasured by the contractors responsible for many of the "restoration" projects. At any rate, this seems to be the logic governing the on-going transformation of the architectural heritage into an "open museum" emptied of the inhabitants who are its only true heirs. And perhaps such gentrification -- carried out very successfully in Turkey and Syria, for example -- is least inappropriate in the case of the public baths. This could be at least one way of solving the profit vs history equation that, however artificial it may be in reality, is tearing "Islamic Cairo" to pieces.


Rana Kabbani, Europe's Myths of Orient, Pandora Press, London, 1988

E W Lane, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Written in Egypt during the Years 1833-1835, East-West Publications, The Hague and London/ Livres de France, Cairo, 1978

Ali Pasha Mubarak, Al-Khitat Al-Tawfiqiya, GEBO, Cairo, 1994

Edmond Pauty, Les Hammams du Caire, IFAO, Cairo, 1933

André Raymond, "Les bains publics du Caire à la fin du XVIIIè siècle," Annales Islamologiques, vol. VIII

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