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Therein lies the scrub

Syria's hammams are not a benign affair - think dousing in hot water and a violent massage

Image Credit: Corbis
The glass-dotted domes of the old baths beneath the Citadel

Who was the first modern Englishman to take a bath? For Mymoney, it was Sir Thomas Herbert, in 1625. That was the year the Yorkshireman toured Persia, returning with wild talk of hot water and body cleanliness. People were agog for foreign marvels in those days — even bananas could cause a sensation. Fluffy towels and soap were novelties — and not necessarily welcome ones. After all, no self-respecting Englishman had been required to wash for more than 1,000 years, not since the Romans packed up and took off, abandoning them to dirt and head lice.

Fortunately or not, it still remains well-nigh impossible to have a decent bath. And by a bath, I mean a proper dousing in scalding-hot steam and water, a vigorous scrub, a violent massage and a long, gentle recline with a glass of sweet tea.

Eroded culture

Istanbul, it's true, has a couple of grand establishments but the languid, slow-moving culture of the oriental hammam has been sadly eroded. No, the modern Herbert has to go a little further, maybe to Syria. That was where I chose to go — to Aleppo, the ancient Silk Road city.

My mission, once ensconced in the town, is to locate the best baths. The guidebook recommends the Hammam Yalbugha near the citadel but it's closed for repairs and looking as if it may not open for a long time. That's a shame, since it is said to be the most architecturally spectacular of the lot.

Sitting on the wall outside the citadel, I get quite a crowd of advisers debating where I should go. The first choice, Hammam Al Bayada, is another failure. I am chased from the foyer by the bathkeeper: "This is a ladies' day!"

My guides point me in the direction of a second choice: "You want Hammam Al Nahasin in the souq."

Entering via a cave-like door near the citadel, I am swallowed up by Aleppo's vast covered bazaar. This huge, many-headed beast is not somewhere to pop into for a drink of milk. It's more like a world in itself. People live here. Donkeys spend their existence in it.

Escape from modernity

Hammam Nahasin is on one of the many side arms of the beast. A rather homely pine door leads to some steps down into a large vaulted hall. In the centre are various tables stacked with red-and-white chequered towels and sarongs. Around the sides are booths, carpeted and cushioned, all filled with dozens of youths watching television. It is one of the few modern developments in a place that has been operating for about 800 years, ever since towels were invented.

A great side trip from Aleppo is to Hama, 140 kilometres south, where you can see the ancient art of towel weaving at the Al Madani family workshop. I choose to have the full works and receive a bar of soap and a mizar (sarong) and manshafa (towel/scarf). Changing into my gear, I amble through a side door into the baths. To my surprise, it is empty. Everyone is watching the film. There is a series of domed rooms with niches and benches, some larger than the others. The building is clearly ancient but modern white tiles have been thrown over everything. The once-beautiful water chute is out of use. In the main domed hall is a huge stone bench and behind it, the steam room. I sit there and soak it up. I soak it up for quite a long time. Eventually, I go out and bellow: "Haya! Gad jaahiz!" My Arabic is rusty but I hope this translates as: "Oi, I'm ready!"

After another ten minutes — presumably time for the film to finish — I hear the outer door open. A bare-chested man ambles in, carrying a large copper pot, an enormous sponge and some intimidating items that look like oversized Brillo pads. This is the mukayyis (the scrubber). He is wearing a mizar and some tattooes. One on his right arm reads, in English, "Leave me alone".

"Where did you get that?" I ask brightly.

Scowling, he directs me into one of the domed recesses. "Sit down." I do so.

He throws several pots of warm water over me. His left pectoral is inscribed with the message "Death or freedom". His left upper arm has a worn and faded image: Once possibly a female figure, it now resembles a corpse after a dose of napalm. Undoubtedly, I reflect, this is the right man for the job.

He sets to with a scourer on my legs and feet. The abrasion comes with powerful squeezing of muscles and by the time he gets to my torso, I'm already in that weird rag-doll state of being pummelled into submission. He does my armpits with the same intensity. Then he pinches the flesh on my back, working his way up to my head like a giant lobster. I lose sense of time. I turn over when slapped. My eyes close. The process is punctuated by sudden douches of hot water. Then, with a final dismissive splosh, he steps back, still grimly unsmiling, to make way for a second character, the munashfi.

This tiny man, barely five feet tall, is dressed in football kit and a huge pair of sea boots. He is also cheerful and gentle. If the hammam were a Greek tragedy — and in some ways I think it is — this man's entry is the peripeteia, the moment of dramatic reversal that marks the beginning of catharsis.

He smiles and talks softly, shampooing my hair and wrapping me in towels and leading me outside to be plied with tea. I lie in a booth, empty-headed and blissful. Slowly, very slowly, words and pictures begin to assemble themselves inside my mind into something resembling what is commonly called "thought". I dress and leave, walking at the speed of a zombie on tranquillisers. I drift around the souk, unable to summon up the energy to leave.

Tang and tunes

Eventually, I escape and make my way to the Jneina part of town, where the Beit Sissi restaurant lies, reputedly the best eating house in town. I try the kebab labania — lamb with yoghurt. A violinist plays bittersweet Syrian folk tunes and strange reworkings of Puccini to ecstatic applause from the tables.

The restaurant is a dark and dreamy throwback to when Agatha Christie haunted Aleppo, waiting for her husband, Max Mallowen, to finish his archaeological digging. There are cabinets here, filled with curiosities; maybe Mallowen dug some of them up.

An old man with a cane and handlebar moustache talks to me energetically, explaining each item. His words are lost in the wailing violin but I don't care and nod gently at everything he says. Later I head back to my hotel, determined to recover the power of speech by the following morning.

"Are you OK?" asks the receptionist, peering into my face.

I nod, trying to form some words. His face lights up. "You went to the hammam?" I nod. He smiles. "I will send tea for you."

I'm sure Thomas Herbert, had he been alive, would vouch that I had, most definitely, a decent bath.

Try a hamman in the UAE

II One & Only Royal Mirage, Dubai

Complete oriental treatment

Duration and cost: Dh360 for 50 minutes; Dh475 for 80 minutes; and Dh650 for two hours

II The Palace Hotel, Old Town, Dubai

Oriental hammam ritual

Duration and cost: Dh495 for 75 minutes

II Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara

Royal hammam ritual

Duration and cost: Dh685 for 75 minutes

Cereal body polish (for sensitive and dry skin)

Duration and cost: Dh685 for 75 minutes

II Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort & Spa

Al hammam and Royal hammam (deep cleansing and light massage)

Duration and cost: Dh140 for 60 minutes and Dh605 for 75 minutes

II Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, Abu Dhabi

Hammam ritual (using black hammam soap, salts and natural ingredients)

Duration and cost: Dh650 for 45 minutes

II Sandalwood Scrub (herb crushed and blended to assist the removal of dry, dead skin)

Duration and cost: Dh400 for 45 minutes