Historic “Hammams” restoration: Social investment and memory recall
Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad
Residents of the northern city of Idlib, of all ages, returned to meet in the ancient baths, known as hammams, in rituals that mixed popular songs, dances of the past, and details of the present, trying to overcome the worries of the war that left its bitter mark on everything.
Some of the people of Idlib went to invest in the ancient baths after they were absent from government negligence, and the war left them vulnerable to extinction. They restored them and opened their doors, giving the people of the city the opportunity to restore some of their memories and highlight part of their civilization that bears many stories of fathers and grandfathers.
Although the return of the ancient baths revived lost social rituals, the investment in archaeological sites raised many fears that the restoration operations would contribute to obliterating and changing the features and archaeological character of the baths, especially after they were the target of the bombing that destroyed a large part of them.
The ancient baths are part of the historical identity of the city of Idlib, as they were built near the historical guesthouses to receive the city’s residents and visitors, says researcher and historian Fayez Qusra.
The city of Idlib is famous for its soap industry, which gave its ancient baths additional value and made it a destination for merchants and travelers.
The baths were also associated with many popular rituals, including receiving pilgrims, weddings, and various happy occasions, according to Qusra.
“We are forgetting our conditions and concerns and remembering our ancient heritage,” Bassam al-Ajmi, a 50-year-old IDP from the city of Maarat al-Numan, told Enab Baladi while he was in the al-Rawda bath, wearing traditional clothes.
“We, the displaced living in tents, found in these baths an opportunity to gather with our loved ones and live the rituals of joy that we missed,” al-Ajmi added in praise to “the beauty of the ancient baths’ rituals, which preserved their place in the hearts of the people of Idlib.”
Al-Ajmi believes that the restoration of the baths is an initiative of people who value the heritage of Idlib and an opportunity for the new generation to see the civilization of its fathers and grandfathers.
During his visit to the al-Dhahiriya bath, Lutfi Dukhan, a man in his seventies, told Enab Baladi that the return of the baths has revived ancient heritage, customs, and traditions.
“When we were children, our parents always took us to the baths, and today we are repeating what they did decades ago so that these baths are an opportunity to meet loved ones and have fun,” Dukhan added.
Idlib is famous for its popular baths, some of which date back to the Roman era, while others date back to the Ottoman era.
There are about ten baths scattered in different places in Idlib and its countryside, most of which were neglected and out of service before 2011.
Restoration or change of characteristics?
The Director of Antiquities and Museums in the city of Idlib, Ayman Nabo, told Enab Baladi that the first condition for investing in archaeological sites, even if they are privately owned such as ancient baths, is to preserve the function of the building.
Nabo stressed that investors must restore the baths to serve the people in accordance with the goal of building them hundreds of years ago.
Despite the Directorate of Antiquities’ attempt to preserve the characteristics of the baths by monitoring the restoration process, some abuses were committed by investors due to the great damage that the baths were subjected to, according to Nabo.
The directorate has postponed the restoration operations in the al-Dhahiriya hammam several times due to violations of building restoration standards, according to what Nabo said.
He expressed fears that ancient buildings would be demolished and vanished, especially buildings that are private property, such as baths, as their owners can demolish them at any time.
This is what makes its protection in need of care and special laws because there are no laws in this regard at the present time, says Nabo.
Historian Fayez Qusra says that most of the restored baths have not changed their essence and artistic distribution is taken from the Turkish bath and that the restoration operations did not use modern technologies in order to preserve the baths.
While the al-Dhahiriya hammam was subjected to beautification operations for the external building in order to restore the great damage that it had suffered during the past years, according to what Qusra said, considering that these operations are “practically acceptable,” as they did not completely change the façade of the hammam, and preserved its location and heritage value.
The security and living conditions in Idlib make the opportunity for profit from investing in archaeological sites very limited, as the financial income of archaeological sites depends primarily on tourism, which raises questions about the motives for investing in the baths, whose restoration requires large costs that are borne by investors alone.
“On my way to work, I pass by the bath every day, feeling sorry for our deserted heritage,” Haider Ghurair justifies to Enab Baladi his decision to invest in the recently opened al-Dhahiriya hammam.
“My love for the antiquities and heritage of this city, and my desire for the new and future generations to know the status of our heritage, made me overlook the lack of financial profit from this investment,” according to Ghurair.
The ancient baths are a “social event” and an outlet for the city’s residents and the displaced who lack a normal social life and a sense of joy, he added.
The cost of restoring the al-Dhahiriya hammam was about 50,000 US dollars due to the great damage it was subjected to as a result of the bombing, while Ghurair expected that the cost of restoration would not exceed 20,000 US dollars.
Ghurair’s motives for investing in the al-Dhahiriya hammam are not different from the motives of Ziad Dahneen, who invested in the al-Rawda hammam and reopened it to preserve the heritage of his city, according to what he told Enab Baladi.
“The ancient hammams today provided an opportunity for the displaced people, who live in houses or tents that do not have hot water, to take a shower, in conditions they lacked during the past years,” Dahneen said, considering the need for the ancient baths today to be greater than ever before.
The opening of the baths also contributes to restoring social rituals and brings together relatives and neighbors who were deprived of their usual meetings by the war, according to Dahneen.
Investors in traditional baths face many obstacles due to the possibility of exposure of antiquities in Idlib to encroachments, damage, and violations they were subjected to earlier and the special care required for the restoration of archaeological sites.
Fears that these baths will be bombed again is one of the main challenges for investors, the two investors, Ghurair and Dahneen, told Enab Baladi.
Ghurair said that he faced a problem in obtaining approval from the Directorate of Antiquities in Idlib due to the directorate’s fears of changing the features of the baths during the restoration process.
He added that finding manpower capable of restoring an archaeological site was not easy, as restoring it without changing its features requires certain expertise.
The investor in the ancient al-Rawda bath, Ziad Dahneen, believes that the biggest obstacle for him was preserving the value of the bath and its structure, which had stood for hundreds of years, especially after it lost large parts of it due to the bombing.
Law and protection of ancient baths
Lawyer Hussam Sarhan told Enab Baladi that the ancient baths are registered in the interest of the Antiquities Directorate, and according to Syrian law, they are state property.
The ancient baths are often registered on the list of World Heritage sites, and this gives them protection and provides the necessary financial support for their preservation and restoration.
The ancient hammams in Idlib have not received any attention from the Syrian government, and there are some that fall within private property, according to Sarhan.
In the event that there is evidence of ownership of private baths, the owners can invest in them in the way they see fit and make adjustments and changes according to their vision, he added.
While making any change or modification to antiquities registered as state property is considered illegal and carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years, according to the lawyer.
Article (4) of the Antiquities Law stipulates that all immovable and movable antiquities and archaeological areas located in the Syrian Arab Republic are the public property of the state, with the exception of:
- Immovable antiquities whose owners prove their ownership or disposal of them with official documents.
- Movable antiquities registered by their owners with antiquities authorities.
- Movable antiquities that antiquities authorities do not consider necessary to register.
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