I took my first hamam in Baku a couple of weeks ago with my partner Sandra.In my wanderings through the back streets of the city centre, I came across a long, low building on Dilaria Aliyeva Street [in the old Jewish Quarter of the city], decorated with roaring lion-head fountains and cherubic heads. When I investigated further, I discovered that it was Fantasia, Baku’s first “modern” style hamam, built around a range of twenty-six private bathrooms back in 1884. Unlike traditional hamams, where the main steam room is communal, the Fantasia complex provides privacy, where you and a friend or two can luxuriate in private.
If you have never experienced the particular delights of a hamam, it isn’t as you might think about isn’t being slapped about in a hot room then plunging into ice-cold water to tone up your muscles.
The word hamam is the Arabic word for “spread of warmth”. Over time, it has become associated with what we in the West would call a Turkish bath. Traditional hamams have three sections; the camekan (dressing room), hararet (steam room), and sogukluk (antechamber). It can be considered a wet relative of the Scandinavian sauna, which is all I had to compare it to.
The tradition of the hamam was developed mainly in response the requirements of Islam that obliged everyone to wash before prayers. Muhammad believed that the heat of the hamam enhanced fertility and as the followers of the faith should multiply, its use was encouraged. Hammams were built as annexes to mosques, tied to Islamic laws of hygiene and purification. Until the recommendation to take steam baths, Arabs generally washed in cold water and did not bathe in enclosed spaces, as this was considered wallowing one’s own filth. Since the time of Mohammed, the hamam has spread across the Islamic world and become an institution for both men and women.
Some people have argued that the traditional hamam developed out of the Roman bath, examples of which were left behind after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the conquest of Alexandria in 642AD.
Unless you are a couple with access to a private bathroom, the use of a hamam is usually a single sex affair. The hamam is a place of relaxation but it has also become a place where for men, business can be transacted in a safe environment. The theory is, how can you hide you intentions when you are sitting naked in front of your business partner? For women, the hamam was and continues to be a very important place where you can meet as a group and discuss whatever you want, openly.
In an article on the Islamic hamam by Danni Giacchetti published on-line [see: http://palestineandfurther.blogspot.com/2010/01/islamic-hammam.html] she notes that “when Mohammed first advocated the use of the hamam for religious and recreational reasons, women were forbidden. But after the hygienic benefits were realized, his words were reinterpreted and women were permitted to bathe after an illness or giving birth. Eventually, Arab men reluctantly allowed women full use of the hamam, one of the first opportunities they received to socialize with anyone outside the home. The hamam became such an important part of women’s lives, that the denial by the husband of his wife’s right to visit the hamam was considered grounds for divorce”.
The health benefits of the hamam are numerous. The main one is achieved through the process of hyperthermia, or the overheating of the body. Steam raises the body’s temperature and as a result, speeds up metabolism and blood flow. Increased metabolism and blood flow stimulates muscles, encouraging them to release stored toxins. A hamam is also good for the skin by opening skin pores, releasing trapped oils and dirt, increasing the blood circulation to the skin, relaxing tense facial muscles and loosening dead, dry skin.
There are of course conditions that will not be improved through exposure to heat and the process of sweating like acute inflammatory diseases, malignant tumorous, circulatory disorders and serious hypertension. You should also steer well clear if you are suffering from tuberculosis, any serious illnesses of the central nervous system and other infectious or skin diseases. In addition, the hamam is not recommended during pregnancy.
If you have any concerns, consult your doctor before booking your first session.
As Sandra and I visited Fantasia as a couple, we were provided with a clean, rough flannel to defoliate each other but individuals and single sex groups have the opportunity to have an expert do the job for them. The delights of the Fantasia hamam however, go beyond steam and hot water.
The hamam is today very much as it was when it was built, during the time of the first oil-boom. The double entrance doors lead you down a tiled corridor to the ornate tearoom at the centre of the complex. Gilded plaster mouldings surround tiled murals of a stag in winter and kingfishers, while a large chandelier hangs from the centre of the ceiling. An ornamental pool below a bow window reminds you of the importance of water in this place of quiet and relaxation. Here you can come drink tea after your hamam or just drop by to enjoy the unique atmosphere.
Entering the anti-chamber of your private bathroom, you have a place to leave your clothes and benches on which to relax after your bathing session. When you have finished bathing, you can rest here and drink the excellent tea that will be served to help with dehydration. From here, you pass into the chamber that holds the steam. Built of resinous pine, it smells like a fragrant forest. You can control the amount of steam and the temperature by use of a simple valve then you may lie down and sweat it out on the large, cool, marble slab that dominates the room.
Once you have had you fill of the steam room, move next door to the domed shower and massage room, where copious warm water is delivered through a large showerhead to revive you. On either side of the shower stands a massive, bathtub, cut from a single block of marble and next to it a further slab of marble, used by the masseuse or masseur.
The Fantasia hamam is not the only Victorian bathhouse in Baku. Tazabay on Sheikh Shamil street was built in 1886 and restored in 2003, it caters however, only for men. The Hamam Mehellesi in the old city, near the Baki Soviet metro station will meet the needs of men and women on different days and is the oldest working hamam in Baku. Modern day spas are also available at the Baku Entertainment Center and in some of the hotels.
An hour of steam, water and a good scrub from an expert will cost you 15 Manat but by golly, if you are feeling tired and jaded by a long day at work or just want somewhere you a couple of friends can pamper yourselves, this is the place to go!