GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Like other cities under Islamic rule, Gaza has had its fair share of public baths, or hammams, considered the pre-eminent characteristic of any Muslim state of old because of their association with religious matters having to do with purity and cleanliness. The baths also played important social and economic roles in their localities, as merchants, princes and sultans competed to build and exploit them as sources of wealth and income. These hammams served the needs of ordinary folk and merchants who traveled through the city during far-flung business trips.
In Gaza, the sole remaining bath is Hammam al-Sammara, considered to be the most important historical landmark in the whole of Palestine. Despite the debate over when it was built, a plaque displayed inside reveals it was first renovated during the Mamluk era by Sinjer bin Abdullah al-Moayyedi in 1286.
As she prepared to leave the hammam, Maha Mohammed explained to Al-Monitor why she frequented the bath. “The first time I came here was when I was told it would help alleviate the psychological pressures I suffered from. Subsequently, I became a regular visitor and advised my friends to come here as well.”
Mohammed believes women primarily come to the hammam for therapeutic purposes — to improve blood circulation, get massages or treat asthma and arthritis and even fertility — in addition to rest, relaxation and enjoying its historic significance.
Umm al-Abd Abu Nujaila, who manages the bath during women-only business hours, told Al-Monitor she has been working there seven years. She has learned massage and homeopathic therapy by taking courses, and learning from other certified specialists at the hammam. Morning and evening periods are dedicated to men, while the afternoon period is devoted to women.
The services provided by the hammam include hot steam baths, massages, warm tiles, Moroccan exfoliation and Dead Sea and mud masks.
People entering the bath first pass through a narrow spiral barrel vault that leads to a gold-domed hall. The ceiling features round stained-glass windows that allow sunlight to pour in and illuminate the area naturally. An octagonal fountain sits prominently in the center of the hall surrounded by two large rooms: the eastern one dedicated to resting after taking a bath, and the southern one where visitors can buy hot or cold beverages.
To the west, the domed hall connects to the remaining rooms of the hammam, which include the changing room and a large, steam-filled bathing room. The bathing room is divided into four smaller privacy cloisters, surrounded from the western side by old marble basins where bathers can scoop up hot water adjacent to a small pool room.
Ahmed al-Wazir, the son of the hammam’s owner, Salem al-Wazir, said: “The Wazir family rented the hammam from a consortium of families that owned it for 610 years, until my great-grandfather bought the 500-square-meter [5,400 square foot] building in 1956.”
Concerning the hammam renovations, Wazir said the family renovates the premises on a yearly basis just to maintain its splendor, for its walls are constantly weakened by excessive moisture, heat and steam. He added that the Center for Architectural Heritage-Iwan undertook restorations in 1999 and since then, the family has been renovating at its own expense.
The number of hammam visitors increases during winter, which indicates that people come there to enjoy a warm bath and improve their circulation, leading to better overall health. The owner said he does not know specifically how many people visit throughout the year, but as a historical, archaeological, cultural, medical and recreational destination, it attracts all kinds of people, even foreign visitors, to the Gaza Strip.
It costs $4 to enter the hammam, which Wazir said is affordable for everyone, though the fee does not include any services, such as massages and exfoliation.
Contemporary baths and saunas have emerged here and there lately, sporting a modern feel, but Wazir said his hammam mainly relies on wood, particularly olive and eucalyptus trees because they burn easily and at high temperature. The atmosphere is what distinguishes the Hammam al-Sammara from others, he said.
Bathhouses in Gaza City flourished throughout Islamic rule as merchants traveled through town, according to Jamal Abu Rida, director-general of antiquities and cultural heritage at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. He indicated that most of those public baths were private and not state-owned.
Concerning the name of the bath, Abu Rida told Al-Monitor, “It is said that, for a long time, a group of Samaritan Jews worked at the bath, leading to it taking their name.”
He attributed the hammam’s survival to the constant care and restoration given to it by the families and princes who owned it, and added that its construction characteristics indicated that it was a royal bath, as evidenced by the use therein of high-quality, water-resistant marble.
Wazir said Hammam al-Sammara belonged to the governor of Damascus, Awis Pasha, and then his daughter Amina Hanem, until it was taken over by the Radwan family during the Ottoman era, before the Wazir family bought it.