Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Hammams hit Paris

An exhibition on the conservation challenges facing Tunisia’s traditional Turkish baths has recently opened in Paris, writes David Tresilian

Hammams hit Paris
Hammams hit Paris
Al-Ahram Weekly

According to an article in Al-Ahram Weekly in January, Egypt’s traditional public bathhouses (hammams) may have “reached the point of no return,” with neglect, indifference and sometimes outright hostility all taking their toll on these important expressions of the country’s architectural and cultural heritage. 

For author Rasha Sadek, most of the bathhouses, the oldest of which date to the Mameluke period, have long since fallen into disrepair or closed, and those that are left are threatened by further deterioration or even demolition. While there were apparently once as many as 1,350 public bathhouses in Cairo alone, today there are only 16. Of these, only a handful are still functioning, and their disappearance would mean the end of a continuous tradition that goes back to Roman times and that since the Umayyad caliphate has been central to Arab and Middle Eastern culture. 

However, it is not only the bathhouses of Cairo that are faced with conservation challenges. Tunis, too, has seen its traditional bathhouses decimated in recent decades, as changing residential patterns and cultural practices have meant that many former customers have either moved away from the older parts of the city in which the majority of the bathhouses are located or have decided to break with traditional practices such as visiting them.

It is the plight of these remaining traditional bathhouses that is the subject of a new exhibition at the Institut des Cultures d’Islam in Paris, which brings together photographs of a dozen or so still-functioning Tunisian hammams and provides intriguing testimony about these threatened institutions. Some 19 Tunisian and foreign photographers have submitted photographs to the exhibition, entitled Regards posés, hammams de la médina de Tunis, many of them showing institutions that have clearly experienced better days, but are continuing to eke out a living nonetheless.

The exhibition, shown at the French Institute in Tunis before it transferred to Paris, has been organised by a Tunisian NGO, L’Mdina Wel Rabtine, made up of residents, local shop-owners and friends of the medina, or historic centre, of Tunis. This large district of narrow winding streets, shaded bazaars and shops, mosques, historic houses and residential areas is the Tunisian equivalent of Islamic Cairo. Like the latter, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and houses many important historic buildings, among them the famous 9th-century Zeitouna Mosque, an important seat of Islamic learning. Like the latter, too, it is a living commercial and residential area, though one facing an array of conservation and other challenges.

 According to the exhibition organisers, members of L’Mdina Wel Rabtine have identified the sites of some 50 historic hammams in the medina district, with 26 of these still functioning, seven closed, and 17 having completely disappeared since they were first surveyed in the early 19th century. In the absence of a plan to save them, the medina’s surviving 33 hammams are threatened with further deterioration along the lines of that facing those in Cairo.

If urgent action is not taken these important surviving witnesses to the city’s past may be threatened with disappearance. The present exhibition, among other things an exercise in consciousness-raising, thus has a polemical character. While it has proved possible to safeguard many of the medina’s grander historic buildings, often by adapting them for new and different purposes, the area’s less-grand heritage has sometimes been more difficult to conserve. 

The hammams, like much of the residential or commercial building making up the district, were never intended to make any particular architectural statement, and, indeed, they are largely hidden from public view and their design is purely functional. However, it is this kind of second-tier heritage that largely gives the district its historical character. Destroying it or allowing it to fall into disrepair would mean destroying the context of the grander historic buildings. 

The problem is that unlike them this comparatively inglorious heritage has historically had fewer defenders. Finding ways of refunctioning it for present purposes has also proved more difficult, since whereas grand historic buildings can usually be adapted for touristic or official purposes, this has been more difficult for more modest and possibly not necessarily always very well designed or built vernacular structures. 

The hope is that grassroots and civil society interventions such as those led by L’Mdina Wel Rabtine and other associations can now suggest new ways forward. They might even provide ideas for the conservation of Cairo’s threatened historic hammams, which are facing many of the same sorts of problems as those identified in Tunis.


A GREAT LUXURY: In his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, written in the 1830s, the 19th-century British orientalist Edward Lane described the importance of Cairo’s public bathhouses to the city’s social and cultural life. 

“Bathing,” he explained, “is one of the greatest luxuries enjoyed by the people of Egypt,” adding that there were between 60 and 70 functioning public hammams in Cairo at the time. These had an important social, as well as hygienic, function, since people would often go to them to relax and to meet friends and neighbours.

The hammams were built according to a tried-and-tested architectural plan that led the bather through hot and cold rooms and out towards a relaxation area. “The building consists of several apartments, all of which are paved with marble, chiefly white, with an intermixture,
in some parts, of black marble, and small pieces of fine red tile, in the same manner as the durka’ah [tiled reception area] of a room in a private house. The inner apartments are covered with domes, which have a number of small, round, glazed apertures, for the admission of light,” Lane wrote.

“The bath is believed to be a favourite resort of ginn (or genii), and therefore when a person is about to enter it, he should offer up an ejaculatory prayer for protection against evil spirits, and should put his left foot first over the threshold.”

As Lane’s description attests, as well as having an instantly recognisable architectural style the baths also played an important role in the neighbourhoods in which they were located and were the source of many popular stories and traditions. Even in Lane’s time, however, wealthier people had private bathrooms and it must have been a brave bather indeed who submitted himself to the massages provided in the public bathhouses.

“The bather sits on the marble seat of the faskeeyeh [fountains], or lies upon a napkin on one of the leewans [benches], or by the edge of one of the tanks, to submit to the first operation, which is that of cracking his joints,” Lane wrote. “The operator cracks almost every joint of his 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 round until it cracks: the limbs are wrested with apparent violence; but with such skill, that an untoward accident in this operation is never heard of.”

It is not recorded whether Lane himself underwent this operation.

The Tunis hammams are built on a very similar plan to the one described by Lane, and aspects of the historic design are clearly recognisable in the modern photographs. There is the same enfilade of connecting rooms, cold, hot and dry, and the same decorative tiles and intermittently glazed plaster domes.

Just as importantly, the Tunisian hammams seem to have provided the kind of experience once provided by those in Cairo. Writing in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, a landmark work and important repository of historical knowledge, the French orientalist A. Louis explains that originally the proprietors and attendants of Tunisian hammams came from among the Mzabis of southern Algeria, forming a guild in Tunis that included personnel such as the haraz al-mahras, haraz al-maksura and haraz al-badal, all of whom had distinct professional functions. The tayyab, or masseurs, were also on hand to provide the experience described by Lane, including scouring with a friction-glove made of goat hair. 

Tunisian ladies, Louis writes, once “went to the baths with much ceremony and an escort of two or three servants. One carried clean linen wrapped in a silk scarf (sorra), another the silver or copper bucket (stul al-hammam) in which were placed traditional objects – a copper bowl with a long handle to ladle out water (tasa), the box of fuller’s earth (taffala), the coarse-toothed comb (khallas), the fine-toothed comb made of tortoise-shell (fallaya), the friction-glove and the small round ‘curry-comb’ (mahakka) made of threads of coarse wool or hempen tow mounted on a cork disc.”

“The women’s sessions provided the occasion, both in towns and villages, for the young bride to parade herself before her friends in the various items of her trousseau,” Louis writes. Like in Cairo and other cities throughout the Arab world, the traditional bathhouses were also considered to be “‘a silent doctor’ (al-tabib al-bakkush), able by its warm atmosphere, as well as the abundant perspiration it produces, to cure all ailments and particularly various forms of rheumatism.”


SAVING THE HAMMAMS: In her Weekly article, Rasha Sadek listed the Margoush, Al-Shaarawi, Al-Abbaseyya and Al-Malatili historic bathhouses as still functioning in the older districts of Cairo, though none of them are thriving. 

In addition to declining visitor numbers, challenges faced by the owners include rising running and maintenance costs and in some cases requirements coming from the buildings’ heritage status. While it is intended to protect the buildings, listing the bathhouses as having outstanding cultural or heritage value can have unintended consequences as it may make it more difficult for their owners to carry out maintenance work. 

Photographs of the El-Marr, Daouletli, Sidi Sahbi, Kachahine, Saheb Ettabaa and other bathhouses in Tunis are included in the Institut des Cultures de l’Islam exhibition, with most of them looking down at heel and in need of extensive renovation. Other bathhouses included in the exhibition, among them the El-Metihra and Sidi Rassas baths, have now apparently been abandoned. While tourism can do something to preserve those that are left, as it can also do in Cairo, Jamel Oubechou, until recently the Institut’s president, sounds a warning note in his introduction to the exhibition.

“The association that put together the present exhibition intended it to be primarily an artistic one, and in this it has far exceeded its remit in the way the photographers have dealt with their subjects, drawing connections in their various aesthetic approaches,” he writes. “However, the exhibition is also a social one, and it is intended to sound the alert about the ways in which the Medina of Tunis is changing and the risk that tourism and the pressures of modernity could come together to turn it into just another folkloristic attraction, dehumanising it and obliterating its historic, human and social character in favour of a location for photo-shoots or items in fashion magazines.”

While the exhibition is intended primarily to draw attention to the hammams of Tunis and the cultural and architectural traditions of which they are a part, it may ironically also be drawing further attention to its host institution in Paris. Opened to the public in 2013 after some years spent in a temporary building, the Institut des Cultures de l’Islam, or Institute of the Cultures of Islam, is a municipal institution, funded by the Paris Council, intended to spread knowledge of the cultures – Arab, African and Asian – of Islam. The Institut has swiftly established itself as playing an important role in furthering the public understanding of Islamic cultures from its premises in the city’s 18th arrondissement, notably through its language teaching and its programme of events and exhibitions. 

It was therefore with some astonishment that observers greeted the news, announced earlier this year, that the Paris Council would not be financing the Institut’s expansion, part of the original plans, thereby forcing it to scale back its programmes and the important work it does both in Paris and the wider French environment. This decision, leading to the resignation in protest of the Institut’s director in February, cannot but appear as a short-sighted one, and not only because of the Paris Council’s otherwise well-attested habit of spending public money on cultural white elephants.

Unlike some of these latter projects, the Institut serves a genuine public need, and it has provided a valuable new venue in an area of Paris that historically has lacked cultural and other institutions. The present exhibition, modest in scale, but well-conceived and intriguing in subject matter, is an indication of the kind of valuable work the Institut could do more of were it to be better funded.    

Regards posés, hammams de la médina de Tunis, Institut des Cultures de l’Islam, Paris, until 4 April.

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