In Lebanon, an 18th-century hammam gets an artsy makeover

An Ottoman bathhouse in the Lebanese town of Saida is now a cultural space

For almost 70 years, Hammam Al Jadeed, an 18th-century Ottoman bathhouse in the heart of Lebanon's coastal city of Saida, has sat derelict, overlooked as the city grew into its modern trappings.

Although the decadently decorated walls have peeled away and many of the coloured glass skylights in the domed roofs, meant to mimic starry skies, have broken, the grandeur of the space in its heyday takes no stretch of the imagination.

Reopened to the public last weekend for an art exhibition, Revival by British artist Tom Young, the bathhouse has been given a new lease of life by Sharqy Foundation founder and Saida resident Said Bacho, who is determined to keep his heritage alive.

The fountains, fuelled by natural springs, once more trickle soothingly and echo around the vaulted ceilings.

Bacho had initially found a building in the old souks with an ancient furnace inside, which he restored and turned into a cafe in 2011. But it wasn't until 2018 that he realised the furnace was the heat source for Hammam Al Jadeed, a few buildings further down.

"The whole idea started in 2018 when we uncovered the hammam, which turned out to be one of the largest Ottoman era hammams in Lebanon," Bacho tells The National. "It was in a state of neglect and ruin, as you can imagine. We started looking into ways of restoring and renovating parts of it, while keeping its original and authentic look and feel."

Built in 1720 by Moroccan merchant Mustafa Hammoud, the hammam played an important socio-economic role in the community. It was a sprawling 10-room complex housing several pools, massage areas and a sauna. Each room was decorated with a unique marble floor design and skylight ceiling pattern, connected by branching corridors and waiting rooms.

“It was the newest in a series of hammams built in the area, which is why it’s bigger compared to the others,” Bacho says. “People from all backgrounds, social classes, faiths and ethnicities used it. It was on the main highway, where people would stop before going on to other areas, so it had an important location historically.”

<span>People sometimes critici</span><span>se my exhibitions as being all about nostalgia, but </span><span>sometimes it's good perhaps to get inspiration from times in the past and reinvent it, in a different way</span>

The hammam was shuttered in 1948, when plumbing started reaching private homes and demand dropped. For a brief period it was used as a carpentry workshop and storage space, until the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), when it suffered some damage. During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, one of the domed roofs was hit by shelling and has yet to be properly restored. For now it is sealed with corrugated steel.

The exhibition, which features about 60 paintings imagining the hammam in its former glory and some of modern Saida, draws from a year’s worth of research done on the bathhouse.

Usually drawn to locations from Lebanon's golden age, steeped in nostalgia and a celebrity status bestowed by the aristocratic class, Young welcomed the community aspect of the Saida project.

"It was open to all economic classes, and it was not only a place of harmony between different religions but different classes," Young says. "It had a very low entrance fee – the municipality even made it free for a time so that the poor could access it, so you would have poor workers next to wealthy merchants in the same pool at the same time.

"This is why it's important to revive that history because we've lost that. Our society in many ways has gone backwards. Things are not progressing," he says. "People sometimes criticise my exhibitions as being all about nostalgia, but sometimes it's good perhaps to get inspiration from times in the past and reinvent it, in a different way."

Archival photos have been used to add authenticity to the paintings. They offer some history and are also included in some documentary videos, which are projected onto the curved walls of the sauna room.

One video features testimonies and memories of Saida residents, now in their 80s and 90s, who remember the bathhouse while it was functional.

A man recalls going to the hammam with his mother, and that young boys would climb onto the roofs and break the small glass skylights, hoping to get a peek at the women below. A woman remembers how Jewish brides would go to the bathhouse to perform a cleansing ritual before their weddings, to be briefly submerged in the pool.

<span>Saida is my hometown and the city means a lot to me, so I thought it was important to put Saida and some of its sites on the international touristic map and to try to shed more light about the peaceful, welcoming and tolerant side of Saida</span>

One of the more surprising stories unearthed in the research was that the hammam was run by a woman named Zahia Al Zarif, who unbeknownst to Bacho was found to be related to his wife.

“She was a very charismatic woman, apparently, and that’s interesting, in such a male-dominated society like Saida, which is very traditional, very Islamic, conservative and where men really dominate nearly everything, that it was in fact a woman that ran the place,” Young says.

The Revival show, open until the end of December, will also include concerts, performances, historical lectures and film screenings, with the aim of getting the community engaged with their history again.

Visits from orphan, refugee and school children will also take place – some of whom were affected by the Beirut blast – to educate them about art and harmony between classes and faiths. A 3D virtual tour of the exhibition is also in the works.

The project has so far been self-funded by Bacho. Working with craftsman and restorer Omar Haidar, they plan to use materials and techniques in keeping with Ottoman architecture, to be as authentic as possible. So far, some electrics, plumbing and wooden railings have been fitted, to make the space usable – exteriors and the damaged dome will be looked at in the next restoration phase.

“We are applying a rigorous work process, doing it in the same old-fashioned way. We’re working with clay and lime, which lasts much longer than concrete,” Haidar says.

“It’s important to preserve the skill of working like this. We want to do something good for the city, so that people would understand the value of this heritage, and how to deal with it.”

Bacho intends to make Hamman Al Jadeed a cultural centre, to hold exhibitions and community events, as well as to draw new visitors to the city.

“Saida is my hometown and the city means a lot to me, so I thought it was important to put Saida and some of its sites on the international touristic map and to try to shed more light about the peaceful, welcoming and tolerant side of Saida,” Bacho says.

“The plan is not to fully renovate it and intentionally we left the walls as they are, to perverse the symbols on them and to let it tell the story of time and how it changed over the years.”

Revival is on show at Hammam Al Jadeed in Saida, Lebanon, until December 31