Today in Cairo, the word ‘hammam’ may just mean the washroom in your house, but eleven centuries or so earlier and for a long time thereafter, a hammam meant a place where people went to luxuriate in steam baths, to get therapeutic massages for their aches and pains and to catch up on the local gossip.
Surprisingly, for a city that boasted one hammam for every single day of the year, there are only around six functioning hammams today and their decaying condition requires urgent action to save the ruins and restore the beauty of these monumental witnesses of Cairo’s glorious past.
|this is the slab of stone in Hammam El Arbaa, where you will be given a scrub down|
I traverse the narrow lanes behind the Boulaq market, dodging splatters of horse-dung, on my way to Hammam El Talat and Hammam El Arbaa.The neighborhood looks poor, neglected and nostalgic...much like the people who frequent the hammams of today. But the owners of El Arbaa-Um Azza and her husband Mohamed el Mesry, aka Okal- insist that their hammam is patronized by people from all walks of life, including people from “high levels’, ‘classy’ women and even actors, though curiously, they cannot remember any names.
|Entrance to Hammam El Arbaa...the owner is obviously not coy!|
He does not feel threatened by the mushrooming of spas all over the city and says that a spa can never offer what a hammam does. “The hammam is not built randomly; we are two meters below the ground and the labyrinthine corridors of the hammam are built in such a way that the body cools gradually as one comes out of the hot steam bath.”
Agreeing with him, May Telmissany, co-author of the book “The Last Hammams of Cairo,” says that “the new spas do not provide the beautiful old environment of the hammams, where relaxation and meditation is still possible. The settings on one hand and the type of services offered on the other hand help the client reach this sort of beatitude and serenity that the spa rarely provides.”
But could the growing popularity of the spas be the reason for the decline of the hammams? Telmissany disagrees and says that the type of clients for each facility is completely different and “the transformation of the hammams into spas will ruin the beautiful and specific traditions of the hammams and once again will prevent the poor from the benefits of the establishment.” Okal compares a spa to a fancy restaurant where one has to eat with knives and forks and a hammam to a home where one eats with hands. “A hammam is ‘baladi’, where people are at ease,” says Okal.
|the reception foyer of the Hammam|
Obviously, these countries have been successful in looking after their heritage. Egypt is indecisive about what it wants to do with its rich legacy of hammams; but the scales seem to be tilted towards its complete oblivion. Okal and Mishmish, with their business acumen have added features to their hammam, more suited to the current times but without preserving the aesthetic simplicity that once characterized the Egyptian baths. The government restores the old hammams- only to convert them into government offices and museums. An indifferent population considers the hammams as very unhygienic and debauched places.
So, is the restoration and preservation of the hammams a battle worth fighting for? Especially, in terms of the costs involved, relevance to the present times and impact on the environment? Telmissany has an emphatic ‘yes’ as answer to the question. “The relevance of the hammams is social and historical. They might not generate large income, but they certainly can in the future if they are renovated and re-opened to the public. Their renovation should take into account environmental issues such as pollution and waste disposal, which might be neglected at the time being because of the scarce income they generate.”
She might have a point; after all, Abu Sir, an early Arab historian once said "Your town is only a perfect town when there is a bath in it."
Hammam El Arbaa: 5 Ansary Street, Boulaq Abul Ela, Downtown
Telephone: 0105790760, 29860588
Open: 9AM-5PM for women; 6 PM to 6AM for men