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Saving Syria's Historic Bathhouses

Architectural historians are ramping up efforts to restore Damascus’s historic bathhouses, which experts say are crumbling and in danger of disappearing altogether.

Ghazwan Yaghi, an expert on Islamic archaeology, believe only 17 communal baths are still opening in the Syrian capital. Once a centre for socialising, many of the estimated 200 bathhouses are in a state of disrepair and neglect.

“The role of the bathhouse has shrunk, and they have been under a lot of pressure, both architecturally and financially,” said Sarab Atasi, a researcher who heads the Old Damascus Studies Office at the French Institute of the Near East in Syria.

In mid-July, the French institute held a conference in to draw attention to the plight of the remaining bathhouses and drum up support for their preservation.

Under a project funded by the European Union, archaeologists and cultural conservationists have been working to restore buildings inside the walls of the capital’s old town, and are also trying to refurbish bathhouses in other parts of Syria and the wider Middle East, according to Atasi.

The French Institute of the Near East is working with the European Union-funded Vienna Institute for Maintained Building Studies to revive public bathhouses in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Turkey and the Palestinian territories.

The baths in Damascus are among the most famous in the region. Many date back to Roman times and flourished in the Umayyad caliphate of the seventh and eighth centuries AD.

In Damascus, the institute is studying the history of the city’s bathhouses and is working on six buildings.

The United Nations cultural agency UNESCO has protected the baths lying inside the old town wall since the Seventies, but conservations are particularly concerned about those in other parts of the city which have largely been neglected, Yaghi said.

Some have been turned into warehouses, and while others have had new buildings erected on their centuries-old sites.

To the casual observer, it would be hard to tell that the 14th-century al-Qanatir bathhouse lies behind a shopfront selling suitcases and shoes.

Bathhouses are an important part of Syrian history, experts say. Historian Shawqi Abu Khalil notes that they were used for political activities, as no one feared a meeting held there would be placed under surveillance. On occasion, political leaders would be assassinated in bathhouses, including princes from the medieval Mamluk dynasty.

Over the centuries, though, bathhouses were mainly a place for socialising, gossiping and traditions such as the ritual purification of a new mother or a bride-to-be. Apart from that, women did not go to public baths, and most of them are now male-only establishments.

When Syrian homes began to acquire private bathhouses in the latter half of the 20th, demand for public facilities plummeted.

The government and conservationists have turned some of the renovated buildings into popular tourist sites, such as the 850-year-old Hamam Nuraddin in Damascus, restored in the early Eighties.

Visiting public baths is expensive by Syrian standards - admission costs upwards of ten US dollars – so they sometime attract more foreigners than locals.

Yaghi said the aim was to ensure bathhouses “are used for their original purposes, and are affordable to all, not just the rich”.

“Reviving the role of bathhouses is meant to revive old rituals and customs,” he said, adding that it is hard to bring back an old way of life in the face of modernisation.

Atasi says the EU-sponsored project is due to end in August, but the research will go on and there are hopes the funding will be renewed.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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