What is a hammam? Simply put, it’s Arabic for what most westerners call a Turkish bath. In turn, a Turkish bath is a simplification of the classical-era baths of Hellas (Greece) and Rome. Hammam (or hamam) is pronounced with a soft “ch” at the beginning, like the Scottish word “loch,” but softer.
While classical public baths featured a complex of rooms for cleaning, swimming, exercising, socializing, etc, the hammam focuses on the use of running water and steam, rather than immersion, and drops the physical fitness function. The focus is on cleanliness, which is important for Muslims preparing for prayer. A typical sequence for a bather at a hammam would be:
- Warm room: this can be a dry or moist heat. Heating is traditionally provided by a hypocaust system (from the Greek hypo = under, caust = fire). Modern hammams can use other heating systems.
- Hot room: comparable to a Finnish sauna. You’re supposed to really work up a sweat here to clear out the pores! Other hot rooms might feature hot stones or tiles to relax on. Cold water is made available for splashing your face or back with.
- Cool room: a place for deep cleaning and relaxation after sweating. Typically, patrons will socialize here and refreshments will be made available.
The Old City of Akko has at least five hammams, although only two are functional.
- The International Conservation Center has a small, private hammam. A general discussion of this hammam is covered in an earlier blog entry Hamam: The Window to Ottoman Life. Currently, I am finalizing a documentation, preservation, and interpretation plan with fellow Saving the Stones intern Courtney Innes. So far, we have created a large document illustrating and identifying the threats to the room’s historic preservation. Ultimately, a future intern should be able to easily execute our plan, reparing any damage, removing foreign material, and turning the hammam into a display space to educate visitors to the Center.
- Another private hammam is at the Effendi Hotel, owned by entrepreneur Uri Jeremias. Jeremias (also known as Uri Buri) has restored a historic small hammam at his hotel. Guests can pay for half-hour sessions.
- Moving on to larger hammams: The Ghattas Bath is the larger functioning hammam in Akko. Our group went there in the early spring and had an amazing time. Our bathing routine began with several minutes in the warm steam room, where we could barely see our hands in front of our faces. Despite this fogging, we settled in to relax, only interrupted by splashes of cold water when needed. Afterward, we each got 15 minutes of massage, which can only be described as “vigorous.” When we weren’t being massaged, we dined on fresh fruits and vegetables served with tamarind juice in the cool room, cleaned ourselves, or sweated it out in the hot room, which my Finnish colleague Riikka found wonderfully familiar – the rest of us were a little intimidated. Overall an amazing experience that geared us up for work again.
- The “Small Hammam” or Sha’bi Baths are now unused and abandoned. A source of controversy is to what use they should be put. As restoring their original purpose as a hammam would require demolition of the remaining structures, it creates a dilemma for planners and residents.
- Finally, the Al-Basha Hammam, while no longer providing bathing facilities, has been restored as a museum/tourism site of local history and the social aspects of hammams. It includes a multi-media presentation of the building’s history and statues demonstrating typical hammam attire and activities.
It is rumored that many of the historic Ottoman period homes within the old city are equipped with hammams, likely being used as dens or storage spaces. Due to the situation of residents and current inhabitants, investigation is often difficult or impossible.