Wednesday, July 6, 2016

History Mystery: The Hammam, the Ancient Bathing Culture of Middle East

Hammam – Public Bath – Vital Social Institution

Before the arrival of modern plumbing, in any Middle Eastern city, the public bath or hammam had been a vital social institution, though presently bathing is considered as a private activity. Hammam seemed to play a significant role in encouraging hygiene and public health, but they also served as a meeting place where individual could relax and mingle. The history of Hammam in the Mediterranean can be traced to Roman thermae where the baths were common, in a geographic range all throughout the Roman Empire, extending from Europe to North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

The Roman baths usually had a reception room or apodyterium that led to a hot room known as caldarium – a warm room or tepidarium as well as a cold room called a frigidarium. The visitors moved around through these rooms where the temperature seemed to change stimulating the flow of blood, boosting the body to sweat out the impurities. Eventually some of the baths comprised of areas where the bathers could exercise. As the tradition of the public baths became popular under the Romans, it gradually died out in the West and continued over several centuries in the eastern Mediterranean.

Public Baths – Important Part of Community Life

Byzantine baths in the region followed many of the same traditions of the earlier Roman baths inclusive of the trends in decoration like the intricate mosaic floors. The Umayyad caliphs had constructed mostly lavish private baths as a needed section of their imperial palaces or qusur. Qusayr `Amra’ in Jordon, an eighth-century complex is probably the best known of these, where the walls of the baths are covered with elegant paintings, comprising of scenes showing women bathing.

But Umayyad baths differ to some extent from their predecessors, where the cold room has been removed, reception rooms seems larger, the bath chambers smaller and the layout much more complex. Scholars suggest that the imperial Umayyad baths had been settings for courteous entertainment and period literature relates stories of drinking parties held at the qusur. All through the medieval period, public baths were an important part of community life and the quality and number of baths, were accounted among any city as the most attributes of the country.

Hammams Altered – Progress in Plumbing

The authors of medieval period have mentioned in their description that the hammams alongside mosques, madrasas and gardens are beautiful and prosperous cities. For instance, Hilal al-Sabi projected that at its height,Baghdad had 60,000 bathhouses while al-Sabi could have been overstated. Though the hammams all over the Middle East tend to look like each other, with regards to their basic outlines, the expression of the structure of the bath together with its decoration were locally specific.


 The hammams had also fascinated the western visitors. Though most of the studies of hammams concentrated on their architecture and decoration, the objects used in the bath were also taken into account. The hammams were usually single-sex with separate bathhouses or bathing times provided for men and woman. Present day hammams have been altered since progress in plumbing have reduced several of the services as out-dated. While people would regularly go to the public bath for cleansing, presently prefer the convenience of the home bathroom causing the widespread decline of the bathhouse.

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