Damascene women had habits and traditions still being observed

Old Damascene bath houses swing between glories of old days and luxuries of present time...Old habits being revived.

Despite the speedy progress of technologies and the development of modernism, history, heritage and old habits still attract people strongly, inviting them to relive past joys and sail in pleasant atmospheres hardly found in modern innovations.

Damascene women had habits and traditions that still being observed by our new generations as a means of change, and as a return to the pleasures of past days. But the real dazzle can be seen in the eyes of foreign tourists, in the heart of the hammam of women, and from the foggy clouds of steam sprouting continuously in what looks like Arabian nights' compartments. The "Syria Times" newspaper will accompany you to this hot bath.

The past is revived in the present (AlWard, AlQaimarieh,  alBakri, Noureddin, alMalik alZaher, alSheikh Raslan, alOmari, Izzeddin, alKahnji, alRifai, alMuqaddam, alSilsileh and Ammouneh.. are names of thirteen hammams,bath houses, still receiving men from dawn to sunset, some receive women from 10.00 AM to 17.00  except Ammouneh which is dedicated to women only.

Baths were built adjacent to mosques because purity is an essential condition for prayers in Islam, the habit of going to the hammam was nearly a daily practice; therefore a pool was built beside each mosque so that men can wash before starting worship. The pool was later supplied with hot water.  And in days of economic splendor the pool developed into a bath house. Mr. Marwan Hammami, 56, director of Hammam alBakri told us: "During the early days of Islam a bath house was built near each mosque. Hammams started during the Umayyad rule, and continued during later periods until the Ottomans came and supplied the hammam with steam, an indication of the importance of hammam in daily life. With the start of the 20th century the role of hammam receded because in each house or apartment a small private bath was built. Now the habit of going to the public hammam is being renewed, noticeably by European tourists who consider such a visit as a luxurious civilized practice and an opportunity for relaxation.

The hammam is divided into four sections: The first one is the entrance where people change clothes and receive towels before going inside, and where they cool down, relax and wear their clean clothes before they leave. The middle section is divided into several separate compartments with hot and cold water faucets pouring water into washbasins around which bathers sit and wash. The third is the hot section where steam and sauna utilities are built. The fourth section is the heater, boiler and water and smoke distributor.

The Hammam is always hot. When the heater is operated it boils water and produces smoke. Hot water goes to inner compartments through pipes, where as smoke rushes through several ducts winding under the floor of the middle and hot sections to keep them hot all round the day. Smoke passes first under the black basalt stone tiles of the hot section, therefore it is the hottest part in the hammam. Feminine traditions of the hammam: Women used to go to the public bath, hammam, once or twice a week, and through social contacts new habits and traditions were established. Mothers in law used to choose brides for their sons in the hammam. In a conservative Islamic society where women used go to the street with veils and long dresses, the hammam allowed them to see candidate daughters in law in their simplest appearance, with no makeup or any other accessories. The second habit is that confined women used to go to the hammam where they rub their bodies with cream made of egg yoke, ginger powder, cinnamon and oil, so that they sweat and reactivate their blood circulation. Normally this practice is attended by relatives and friends invited into a banquet celebrating safety of the mother and the new born.

Sponge, sabot, and bath stone...  Before shampoos and chemical ointments were devised women used natural products for cleaning, perfuming and making up. Mr Abdullatif Nubbali, 72, seller of natural bathing materials said: "I inherited this shop from my father. Although demand on hammam materials receded, I notice today that there is a return to old habits and traditional natural bathing materials like sponges, rubbing cloths, sabots, bath stones, laurel soap,  Aleppine cake, and copper bowels".

Women...in the bath

After taking off their clothes and wearing special towels, ladies move gradually to the hot section, where they soak their bodies in steam as much as they can bear. Here a woman called "the rubber", called so after the rubbing cloth she uses, starts rubbing their bodies. Um Walid, 35, a rubber, told me: "Rubbing the body means clearing it from dead skin cells, an operation which vitalizes the skin and activates blood circulation. I have been work in this hammam for 15 years. I like my job, especially when I rub foreign ladies. They admire my work and make me feel proud of it".

Better than Spain's baths

Gloria, 29, Spanish. This is my first visit to Syria. Bathing here is a wonderful experience. In Madrid there is a similar hammam but for both sexes, and because I am a Moslem I can not go there. Here I feel free to enjoy all the luxuries of the oriental bath; massage, rubbing, and sponging".

Christina, 22, Spanish:"I came from Amman, Jordan, especially to enjoy this experience. I am in a tour in the Middle East. I like the hammam; its structure, design, the way water is distributed, and its services. I assure you I'll come here again. All I miss here is my boy friend". Nermin 21, Palestinian: "I invited my Spanish friends to enjoy this amazing experience. They have read a lot about Damascene baths and saw them in Syrian TV serials. They were greatly excited by this experience". An invitation to the past. What about the management of the bath?The Hammam manager was a real boss whom everybody takes into account. Umaima Abbad, 37, manager of Ammouneh bathhouse said: "It is difficult but interesting to manage women hammams because you have to deal with all classes of society and many world nationalities. Personally, I can communicate with foreign ladies and work hard to satisfy them, make them happy and introduce our habits and rich heritage to them. Many of them feel excited and start to dance with Arab ladies.

The pool is born again:

I was surprised to see the pool being built again in the bath since it was the starting element of the bath. It is a simple large pool filled with running cold water. In Ammouneh bath it is located near the Jaccuzzi. Bassam Kabab, manager of the baths of alMalik alZaher, alUmari and Ammouneh said: "Old and modern civilizations should meet. The pool helps lifting the skin and adjusting body temperature with the outer atmosphere, especially in winter. Although we have the Jacuzzi, we insisted on reviving an old practice to renew the glories of the typical bath house which is one of the major land marks of traditional Damascus".


Adapted by: Haifaa Mafalani