CAIRO — In light of rising costs for almost everything in Egypt, including cosmetic and body care products, ancient bathhouses — “hammamat” in Arabic — have become the destination of women seeking beauty treatments. This trend is not only popular among residents in desirable neighborhoods, but also among women from the middle class, which is finding luxuries increasingly difficult to afford.
A mix of scents from natural, aromatic Egyptian herbs and water vapor fills the air of the simple reception hall of the Talat bathhouse, with its traditional walls and folkloric decorative items. More than a hundred women of all ages are lined up in a narrow alley in the Boulaq area of downtown Cairo, waiting to enter the hammam.
“At least 100 women visit the bathhouse every day, and the number doubles on holidays,” said Um Omran, who manages the facility in the mornings, the period reserved for women. “The women who come to the bathhouse are not only from the district. Women and girls from all walks of life come from far away areas of Cairo. Some of our clients are from other provinces but work in Cairo.”
Um Omran said that the prices and quality of the traditional services offered at the bathhouse are attractive to many women who want to pamper themselves at a low cost. She explained, “For 40 Egyptian pounds, the bathhouse offers all kinds of skin and body care services offered by beauty spas, such as saunas, steam rooms and bathing rituals. Fifteen pounds will be added if the client wants a natural facial and body mask or a henna drawing.”
Um Omran added, “We use Egyptian herb mixtures. The client first takes a steam bath and then gets a relaxing massage. She may also apply facial or body masks of natural blends of lupine and deer blood with some aromatic herbs and essential oils.”
Rania Eid, a government employee waiting her turn to get into the steam room, told Al-Monitor, “One visit a month to the bathhouse is enough to take care of my body without needing to head to beauty salons, where prices have climbed over the last year.”
Eid once frequented a salon near her home in the Abbasiya district. “We used to hear about the bathhouses from the family elders,” she said. “After my first experience at a bathhouse, Talat became my first destination with neighbors, friends and family. Here we find all the beauty care services at one stop when we can't afford luxury services.”
Bathhouses in Egyptian culture are associated with brides-to-be preparing for their weddings, and women on the verge of marriage remain among the most frequent clients. During their visits, the reception hall turns into a singing and ululation ring.
Hind Semaan, a bride-to-be who had visited the bathhouse with other women from her family, told Al-Monitor, “Before my wedding I visited a number of famous beauty centers, but to save money I chose to go to a bathhouse where the services are not very different from those provided by modern beauty salons but at much lower prices.”
Semaan said that most bathhouse clients are looking for beauty care and recreation at low prices. Bathhouses provide a bride-to-be with all the requisite beauty and skin care at a cost of 180 pounds, whereas beauty salons charge 900 pounds minimum.
The sudden rise in the dollar exchange rate, following the government's decision to float the pound in November 2016, as well as an accompanying 60% increase in customs duties on “provocative goods” such as cosmetics and hair products led to beauty product price hikes of more than 100%, which was reflected in higher prices being charged by health clubs and beauty centers.
Cairo is home to seven ancient bathhouses, which are under the supervision of the Antiquities Ministry and currently undergoing restoration and renovation, according to a report by the Urban Regeneration Project for Historic Cairo. Four other bathhouses are supervised by the Religious Endowments Ministry but managed by private individuals under a permanent lease agreement: Talat and Arba, in Boulaq; the Bab al-Bahr, also in downtown Cairo; and Marjoush, in the Bab al-Shariya area.
In light of the increasing number of bathhouse clients, administrators have their staff working almost around the clock in two shifts, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for women, and from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. for men.
The manager of the Arba bathhouse, Mohammed Ibrahim, also known as Oakel, told Al-Monitor that increasing the price of entry did not cross his mind despite the price hike and high fees that the state charges bathhouse owners for water, gas and electricity.
“The current surge in prices has earned bathhouses more customers looking for the same services offered by beauty centers and health clubs but at a lower price,” Ibrahim noted. “We aim to attract customers to restore bathhouses to their former glory.”
Ibrahim said the competition among bathhouses is negligible, with all of them attracting customers. “It is not only our low prices that attract upper- or middle-class clients, but our use of natural water vapor and herbal products causes many to prefer bathhouses over high-priced health clubs that use expensive chemicals and industrial water vapor and imported products.”
With Egypt's high prices and economic challenges, more Cairenes are finding refuge, pampering and self-care in bathhouses not only for personal hygiene, but also for rest and recreation at an affordable price.