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One bowl of hot water and one of cold water solve the problem

The whole Mediterranean region shares an object of cultural value - the public Turkish bath, or hammam. The hammam is part of the collective memory in the Arab Islamic world, and it contributes to the identity of the urban - and also village – culture. It is an architectural legacy and a living cultural heritage, where people gather together; it is well embedded in urban communities, filling an important role for neighborhoods and, in many cases, for the Medina as a whole… And yet, it runs the risk of disappearing for many reasons. These were the starting points of the EU supported project “Hammamed”.

DAMASCUS - In a little side alley in the old city of Damascus, Syria, a group of women approaches a modest door hidden behind a curtain. They are about to enter a very special underworld, far away from the bustling everyday life in the streets: hammam Ammouneh, one of the traditional bath houses in Damascus and a jewel of Islamic cultural heritage.

Steep stairs lead down into the entrance hall of the bath house, with its chandelier under a high dome, a large fountain, soft lights, cool air, and the sizzling sound of boiling tea. Entering the bathing spaces, the women move towards increasing heat, humidity and privacy. They spend the morning getting scrubbed and massaged, relaxing and forgetting about the outside world - a deep cleansing of body and soul. Back to the entrance hall, it’s all about sharing news and spending a moment together. This is one of the few semi-public spaces where women can meet outside their houses yet in privacy. Hammam Ammouneh is a men-free zone all day long until eight o’clock in the evening - this makes Ammouneh even more important to the women who come here. It’s an exceptional case, since most hammams in Damascus nowadays serve men, and only three rehabilitated bath houses open their doors for women, for a few hours in the morning.

Just what is the essence of the Hammam? “As a child I would slide on the floor of the hammam and play with the water. Today we sit here and share secrets”, says 21 years old student Kaouthar Slimani. For Samer Jom’aa, who owns a little shop next door, the bath house has another important function: “When neighbors go to the hammam, they connect with each other. And if there are disputes between them, one bowl of hot water and one of cold water solve the problem!” Others, like housewife Samar Fares, use the bath house to take a break from daily life, but also for special wedding ceremonies. “The hammam is really beautiful”, she says.”People come from all over the place, and then they stay there all day long. They love it!” Some women, she tells, come to hammam Ammouneh to look for a future wife for their sons– just like mothers have done here already 600 years ago.

One traditional space, so many qualities: hammam workers sing special traditional songs when they massage clients, thick walls protect the visitor from the outside world, natural light comes through the glass bulbs covering the domes and vaults. Hammam Ammouneh represents a cultural heritage site that is both tangible – in its architectural form, its heating systems, its’ cold and warm spaces– and intangible in its many social and cultural meanings. Preserving and promoting this culture for Islamic cities and the whole Mediterranean region is the aim of the EU project Hammamed, focusing on three Arabic cities in particular: Damascus in Syria, Fez in Morocco and Cairo in Egypt. Project coordinator Heidi Dumreicher: “In the whole Mediterranean the hammams are an endangered species today. The Hammam culture – just like every living heritage – is very fragile. With modernization and changes in life style, it can easily disappear.”

In Damascus, the project team observed a renaissance of the hammam, but mainly for the middle class, the new elites and tourists in town. The aim of the Hammamed project is to revive the bath houses with respect to their rich history and to keep them open to everyone, with a strong link to local communities and neighborhoods.

Hammam Amouneh, one of the oldest bath houses in Damascus, was a forgotten treasure before the project started– a rundown place for men only, on the verge of being closed. At that time, the place had a bed reputation: “The hammam is causing trouble for the neighborhood, plants are growing on the roof, and it’s very dirty. All of this makes us feel uncomfortable about it”, said a local resident.

The project team started an intense awareness raising process that also involved residents from the neighbourhood in numerous workshops and community meetings. A pioneering renovation project began for hammam Ammouneh in order to save and revive its great historical value and rich cultural heritage. With success: the project team was able to give new life to the 12th century bath house. The building with its beautiful domes was renovated and opened again for women – for a journey from open to closed spaces, from cold to hot, from light to darkness, from noise to quiet.

It’s also a success story for the whole Al Ukaiba neighborhood in Damascus: local residents, women and men alike, are again proud of their hammam. It has once more become a landmark of the area, says local entrepreneur Halla Al Khatib: “You can hear voices singing even if you are just passing by the hammam. The clapping and the voices show how happy women are when they perform these traditions. “

The Hammamed team developed a manual for the adequate use and maintenance of the bath houses. The team also produced a business plan for bath houses, they ran awareness programs for students, organized hammam festivity days and set up a large exhibition. On display: hammam objects, multi media installations, and even hammam proverbs stitched on towels - a tool for awareness raising that attracted over 10.000 visitors in Damascus alone.

Among the many lessons that can be learned from the Hammamed project one certainty: living cultures must be promoted every bit, just as much as old ones. The project shows that the awareness raising process is a long-term, yet promising endeavor. The vision: to support the hammams in the Mediterranean region as places that provide a sense of identity and continuity, where people can look at themselves like in a mirror, and see and appreciate their heritage in the background.

Text by Ina Ivanceanu

Photos by Richard S. Levine, Christophe Graz, Ina Ivanceanu, Christian Sturminger.

Project: Hammamed

  • Contribute to the awareness-raising for the importance of the hammam as a cultural heritage in its tangible and intangible aspects
  • Promote an effective and integrated management for two selected hammams. (management includes all phases of the project cycle, from diagnosis to planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation)
  • Encourage the accessibility to the hammams at the two selected cultural heritage sites: subsequently these pilot projects can be used as best practice examples for other hammams all over the Mediterranean region
  • Encourage the knowledge of traditional social practices associated with the hammam in order to overcome constraints for actively using this kind of space, but also to enhance the knowledge about the unique architecture
  • Encourage social and economic side effects through the successful revitalisation and modernisation of the two hammams: the surrounding areas should experience an example of urban regeneration

From: 01.01.09 To: 01.04.12
Budget: € 1.193.470,00
Countries involved: Austria,Egypt,Morocco,Syria

Project sheet

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