Scrubbed Raw in Aleppo
It has been described as anything from a public bath to a social spa experience. Now the “in” thing, many luxury hotels tout their own. I’m sure rose water and marble interiors at a hotel like Mamounia are wonderful, but I’d like to think they can’t compare to experiencing a traditional hamman in Aleppo, Syria.
We had no idea what was going to happen when the three of us made reservations for a traditional bath. Aleppo is an ancient and fascinating city, site of Saladin’s fabulous castle and a huge souk where every lane has a different specialty. It is also a conservative Muslim city, and three Western women with heads uncovered and wearing something other than the black abiyah, stand out.
Our visit had to be on a Wednesday, the day when only women are allowed in the ancient facility. It may also have been a Western Women Only day, from the amused expression on our receptionist’s face.
The first part seemed familiar enough, for anyone who has been to a spa. We were offered some water or tea, lockers for our clothes, huge towels to wrap around our bodies, and ushered in to a waiting room. Unlike a modern TV-set looking waiting room in the US, this waiting room was part of a high domed, cavernous structure hundreds of years old.
That’s where the familiarity to any spa procedure ended.
First I was escorted into a hot, steamy room and seated on a little stool, where a very strong woman wielding a large black mitt made of some substance resembling coarse sand started scrubbing. Forget trying to maintain any sense of dignity. The three of us, seated on our individual stools with our personal attendants, were quickly reduced to skinned pulps gasping for breath in between buckets of soapy water poured over our heads that alternated with our total body exfoliation.
Freed of any dead, and possibly living, tissue, we were directed to another huge marble-floored room. This one was filled with steam of a sufficient temperature to open any exposed pore. The steam was so thick it was impossible to see who was where. Voices were the only indication that anyone else was in the room, and that there might be an exit door.
Ushered into the next room, we breathed in cooler air, grateful for the change. Just when I began to think survival was possible, our handlers reappeared. Instinctively I cringed, but there were no black mitts, just big smiles and piles of fluffy white towels. Wrapped in our cocoons, the three of us were escorted into another high-ceiling room, seated on benches lining ancient stone walls, and served tea and water, savoring our last moments away from the noisy, busy, dusty streets.
I have never felt that clean before, or since.
(Note: since the Syrian civil war, Aleppo, like much of Syria, has suffered major destruction, including the historical center where the hamman was located.)