DAMASCUS, Syria — In the steamy chambers of glistening marble and alabaster, Arab conquerors came to bathe after battle, spies spread rumors, plotters hatched coups and mothers checked out the legs of their future daughters-in-law.
A thousand and one tales of intrigue, baby-snatching, matchmaking, leisurely encounters, celebrations and violence are told of the hammams, the Turkish baths of the marketplaces of Damascus and Aleppo.
A meeting place for relaxation and ablution--the latter a must for Muslims before prayer--the hammam, in addition to the bazaar and the mosque, had become a distinctive trait of city life and a mirror of Damascus society until it started going out of style in the 1940s and '50s.
Old Syrian homes were not designed to include bathrooms. So men and women, on separate days, would troop to the baths in their neighborhoods.
At the baths, attendants scrub down clients with a rough glove of camel or goat hair after they have sweltered in vaporous, foggy alcoves. Hammered and engraved brass bowls are used to pour water out of sculpted stone basins to make more steam.
The lengthy ritual is concluded with the cooling-down period: a mellow seance of tea-sipping and chatter, sometimes singing, and drawn-out socializing--a cherished Arab pastime helped by a disregard for time.
Wrapped in towels striped with red, orange and gold, customers lounge on benches decked with Persian carpets in a well-lit foyer around a big fountain, inlaid with pink stone and basalt.
The ornate, spacious settings and elaborate procedures of thorough and relaxed bathing are slowly becoming no more than soapy Syrian folklore. The necessary, though pleasant, weekly cleansing routine of old, which could last from one to four hours, is being driven out by the modern, more efficient bathtub.
Of the 130 hammams formerly in Damascus, only little more than a dozen remain in operation. They cater to low-income families for whom domestic bathing facilities are still not available, out-of-town laborers, curious tourists and the incurably nostalgic, clinging to the customs of their ancestors.
"It is a dying trade, and if the government or private entrepreneurs don't come up with money and ideas for restoration and continuation, the few hammams we have will be eliminated," Marwan Hammami, a passionate hammam buff, said.
Hammami relates how as a young boy he helped his father and grandfather run the family business, from which their name stems, at the Noureddin Shahid bath in the teeming Midhat Pasha souk, or marketplace.
An expert on hammam design and effects, Hammami insists that the Arab bath was derived from those of ancient Rome and adapted to Islamic requirements of cleanliness before prayer. The term "Turkish bath," which came later with the Ottoman Empire, is a Western misconception, according to hammam experts here.
Ornate Baths of Aleppo
Syria's most beautiful baths are in the northern city of Aleppo. Large domes and cupolas studded with hand-blown turquoise and honey-glass globes allow sunlight to bathe the steamrooms and lounges.
"After preparing for the bath, you step into a room filled with steam, covered with a rounded dome and egg-shaped glass bulbs. Light streams in from the outside through the stained glass, and it is very, very lovely," said Marjorie Ransom, the press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. On Saturdays, she and other women from the diplomatic corps would rent Aleppo's Noureddine bath for a private morning bath.
"It is an outlet for physical strain," Hammami said. "After a hammam you lie down with ease. The bed pulls you to sleep instead of you pulling at the bed."
Experienced hammam attendants wear no watches, but they can tell customers the time of day by looking up at the refraction of sunbeams. "Being in a hammam is like sitting on the moon," Hammami said. "The reflection of light is partial, never complete but always soothing."
Turkish baths were of prime importance for sexual education in conservative Arab societies, and the place where little boys and girls caught the first glimpse of the opposite sex.
Families came together. Syrian writer Siham Turjman, author of "Oh, Treasures of Damascus," reminisces of the weekly trips to the bath in her childhood neighborhood of Souk Sarouja.
"Every Thursday, my mother, sisters and I would take our towels, home-cooked soap and lunch to spend the day at the hammam," she said. "It was nicer than going for a picnic along the river." Her book describes the old soul of Damascus, with scenes of laughter, prenuptial ceremonies for brides-to-be and shrill quarrels in the hammam.
Eager mothers would closely inspect the figures, hair texture and complexion of eligible candidates for marriage and hurry back home to describe what they had seen to their husbands and sons.