Arabian delights: our visit to an Aleppo hamam

Citadel of Aleppo in evening light

“There are many women inside! Over 150! It’s very crowded – do you want to go in?” The man at the cashier has a slightly alarmed air about him. “Yes,” we nod, a little puzzled, “and could we have a bar of soap, please?” Sure we want to visit the old hamam in Aleppo! After all, today is women’s day in the 500 year-old Yalbougha An-Nasri Hamam, and weekend, too.

When we enter the domed, cruciform atrium the air is filled with steam, children’s laughter, music, and the sweet apple-scented smoke of nargilehs (water pipes). Women of every age in morning gowns or underskirts lounge about in plastic chairs and on benches and thick cushions on long platforms along the walls, chatting, sipping tea and smoking.

Our visit to the old town of Aleppo

Aleppo is the longest continuously inhabited city in the world, and the whole Old City with its citadel, dozens of mosques and madrasas, and 12 km of souqs, is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Supported by the German Development Ministry (BMZ), the Syrian government has initiated a long-term programme for the rehabilitation of the old city. As the old quarters had been neglected by town planners for decades, the more affluent residents have long moved out. The new, higher buildings destroyed the privacy of the inner courtyard of their homes, an important asset for the quality of life. The rehabilitation project aims to bring “normal life” back into the Old City, and indeed Aleppian women cherish a Saturday afternoon visit to the beautiful old bathhouse just south of the citadel.

Girls in red trousers running in the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo

“Welcome” and “Let’s dance,” yell the young women in their laced underskirts and fashionable bathing suits. Aziza has beautiful, long curly hair and is wearing grey sports underwear. Today is her birthday and she is having her birthday party in the hamam. A crowd has gathered in our corner, passing around a few drums, and everyone is clapping with increasing speed. Belly dancing is obviously a national pastime. Aziza vigorously shakes her hips and breasts, motioning us to do the same. Of course, life-long training can’t be matched, but Natascha (at least) is apparently doing well enough. Later, everyone is lounging around some fountains in rooms deeper down in the building, eating and drinking, and occasionally scrubbing each other with lots of soap and foam.

The ruins of St Simeon and other sites of Northern Syria

Ruins of St Simeon monastery

Aleppo is famous for its traditional, handmade olive soap. In the area north of Aleppo, we pass through millions of olive trees on our way to the monastery of St Simeon. The olives were already one of the region’s most important export products when Simeon, a Christian ascetic, lived here in the 4th century. The ancient villages were settled from antiquity to the Byzantine Era. They are also part of the UNESCO World Heritage.

Stump of St Simeon's pillar

Saint Simeon decided to spend his life meditating on a pillar, the height of which he gradually increased to 18 m. Not once coming down for the last 30 years of his life, he became a tourist attraction and his column a pilgrimage site. Soon after his death, worshippers built an enormous cruciform cathedral around the pillar. For a while, stylitism was en vogue among serious Christians. Today, most walls of the cathedral can still be seen. St Simeon’s pillar itself has shrunken to about 1m as too many pilgrims have scraped off a little bit.

A visit to Ain Dara, a Neo-Hittite archaeological site near Aleppo
Ain Dara, an ancient Hittite temple we visited near Aleppo
Syrian sweet puddings

There are no more pilgrims and extremely few tourists. We are glad to be among them as we find Syria utterly enchanting.

Our only concern is that the country offers more kinds of delicious sweets than we can reasonably try. And yes, we consider buying comfortable underskirts for our next visit to the hamam.

NB: Our visit to Aleppo and Syria was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves

NB: All UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria are meanwhile classified as “in danger”. Ain Dara, we read, is practically destroyed, as is Saint Simeon’s pillar and much of his church. In the vicinity of Aleppo we also visited the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria

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