Sammara Public Baths
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 09.12.2006:
Hammat al-Sammara/Hammam es-Samara / By Laila El-Haddad
In Gaza, where the first recorded human settlements date back more than 6,000 years, there is a little bit of history in every corner.
Such is the case with Hammam es-Samara.
Tucked inconspicuously away in the Zeitun quarter of Gaza’s old city, 3 metres below street level, the ancient public bath continues to welcome visitors to its steamy abode.
A plaque in the lobby proclaims that it was restored by the Mamluk Governor, Sangar Ibn Abdallah, nearly 700 years ago, although it is rumoured to date back to pre-Islamic times. Of the original five Turkish bathhouses in Gaza, Hammam es-Samara is the only one that remains.
After nearly being destroyed due to rising costs of maintenance, the public bath has recently received a facelift with the help of the UNDP and the Islamic University, which has helped to transform its tarnished and neglected interior.
The bath-which functions as a primitive spa of sorts-provides much-needed respite from the hubbub of Gaza’s crowded city life. Its waters are rumoured to heal rheumatism and infertility, and the bath itself acts as a communal gathering place for women in the community.
The bath is heated by an ancient system of aqueducts and wood-fuelled ovens underlying the marble flooring.
Visitors to the bath should bring their own swimsuits, towels, and toiletries (the bath does not permit nude bathing), and if possible, leefas or other body scrubs. Changing rooms are available for your convenience.
Visitors will first enter the main chamber-also known as ‘the steam room’- that leads to several smaller rooms with varying degrees of heat, including room temperature. Sprinklers shower cool water on bathers to prevent overheating, and canisters are provided for ladling water. The final stage involves wading in the maghtas, a small pool filled with extremely hot water, about a metre deep.
To get the true experience of the public bath, allow the professional ‘scrubber,’ or mudalik, to massage and scrub down your back while you sit and soak in the steam.
“You come out feeling as though you’ve received new skin!” proclaims one bath-goer.
To keep the baths truly communal, the price of entry is set at 15 NIS (approximately $3.35). The Hammam is open daily for men, from 05:00 to 12:00 and 17:00 to 22:00, and for women from 12:00 to 15:00.
Laila El-Haddad is a Palestinian freelance journalist and blogger who is based between Gaza and the U.S. Her blog, Raising Yousuf, can be found at www.a-mother-from-gaza.blogspot.com
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