DAMASCUS, SYRIA -- In the steamy chambers of glistening marble and alabaster, Arab conquerors came to bathe after battle, spies spread rumors, plotters hatched coups and mothers checked out the legs of their future daughters-in-law.
One thousand and one tales of intrigue, baby snatching, matchmaking, leisurely encounters, celebrations and violence are told of the hammams, or Turkish baths of the souks, or marketplaces, of Damascus and Aleppo.
A meeting place for relaxation and ablution -- the latter a must for Moslems before prayer -- the hammam, in addition to the bazaar and the mosque, had become a distinctive trait of city life and a mirror of Damascene society until it started going out of style in the 1940s and '50s.
Old Syrian homes were not designed to include bathrooms. So men and women, on separate days, would troop to the baths in their neighborhoods.
At the baths, attendants scrub clients down with a rough glove of camel or goat hair after they have sweltered in vaporous, foggy alcoves. Hammered and engraved brass bowls are used to pour water out of sculpted stone basins to make more steam.
The lengthy ritual is concluded with the cooling-down period: a mellow seance of tea-sipping and chatter, sometimes singing, and drawn-out socializing -- a cherished Arab pastime helped by a disregard for time. Wrapped in towels striped with red, orange and gold, customers lounge on benches decked with Persian carpets in a well-lit foyer around a big fountain, inlaid with pink stone and basalt.
The ornate, spacious settings and elaborate procedures of thorough and relaxed bathing are slowly becoming no more than soapy Syrian folklore. The necessary, though pleasant, weekly cleansing routine of old, which could last from one to four hours, is being driven out by the modern, more time-efficient, bathtub.
Of the 130 hammams in Damascus, only little more than a dozen remain in operation. They cater to low-income families for whom domestic bathing facilities are still not available, out-of-town laborers, curious tourists and the incurably nostalgic, clinging to the customs of their ancestors.
"It is a dying trade and if the government or private entrepreneurs don't come up with money and ideas for restoration and continuation, the few hammams we have will be eliminated," said Marwan Hammami, a passionate hammam buff. Hammami relates how as a young boy he helped his father and grandfather run the family business, from which their name stems, at the Noureddin Shahid bath in the teeming Midhat Pasha souk.
An expert on hammam design and effects, Hammami insists that the Arab bath was derived from those of ancient Rome and adapted to Islamic requirements of preprayer cleanliness. The term "Turkish bath," which came later with the Ottoman Empire, is a western misconception, according to hammam experts here.
Syria's most beautiful baths are in the northern city of Aleppo. Large domes and cupolas studded with hand-blown turquoise and honey-glass globes allow sunlight to bathe the steam rooms and lounges.
"After preparing for the bath you step into a room filled with steam, covered with a rounded dome and egg-shaped glass bulbs. Light streams in from the outside through the stained glass, and it is very, very lovely," said Marjorie Ransom, the press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. On Saturdays, she and other women from the diplomatic corps would rent Aleppo's Noureddine bath for a private morning.
"It is an outlet for physical strain. After a hammam you lie down with ease. The bed pulls you to sleep instead of you pulling at the bed," Hammami said.
Experienced hammam attendants wear no watches but they can tell customers the time of day by looking up at the refraction of sunbeams. "Being in a hammam is like sitting on the moon," Hammami said. "The reflection of light is partial, never complete but always soothing."
Turkish baths were of prime importance for sexual education in conservative Arab societies and the place where little boys and girls caught the first glimpse of the opposite sex.
Families got to know one another there and came together. Syrian writer Siham Turjman, author of "Oh, Treasures of Damascus," reminisces of the weekly trips to the bath in her childhood neighborhood of Souk Sarouja.
"Every Thursday, my mother, sisters and I would take our towels, home-cooked soap and lunch to spend the day at the hammam. It was nicer than going for a picnic along the riverside," she said recently, leafing through her book, which describes the old soul of Damascus, with scenes of laughter, prenuptial ceremonies for brides-to-be and shrill quarrels in the hammam.
Eager mothers would closely inspect the figures, hair texture and complexion of eligible candidates for marriage and hurry back home to describe what they had seen to their husbands and sons.
"For women, it was like a private or nude club," said Bashir Zuhdi, a lecturer on aesthetics at the University of Damascus. The trip to the hammam was of utmost importance, and in some districts of Damascus, where the hammam was far from the residential areas, men would escort clusters of women there and back, rifles slung across their shoulders.
"The Turkish bath was a pivot, a central meeting point in fantasy," said a West German Orientalist and frequent visitor to Syria.
The famed Ommayyad Mosque here has four main doors, and facing each door there used to be a hammam. Bridegrooms, who in those days still lived under their parents' roofs, would discreetly alternate among the four baths to wash themselves for the early morning prayer each day. The aim was to deflect gossip about their new status, according to Hammami.
Zuhdi, who is also chief curator at the National Museum of Damascus, said Arab baths were status symbols. Residents exhibited their wealth or generosity by their conduct and the way they treated attendants, he said. Folk medicine, preventive cures, special beauty care and treatments related to child-bearing were administered in the hammam with pomp, frills and formality.
Forty days after giving birth, women would be pasted from head to toe with a yellow mud made of ginger, mustard powder, thyme, eggs and honey and left for an hour in a central passage linking the inner chambers. Tiled with black basalt and usually the hottest part of the stone floor, the corridor is known as "the house of fire" because it is heated from underneath and warms the entire bathing quarters.
This body mask, called a shaddad, was meant to have a rejuvenating effect and to restore a woman's strength so she could face her household and marital duties with renewed vigor after the strenuous effort of childbearing.
The history of the baths as chronicled in books and by hammam workers was not always rosy. It is said that some women, unable to live down the shame of delivering a girl baby rather than a boy, found ways of switching their bundles with luckier mothers.
The hammam was also a place for settling scores. Soaping the floor to make a hated rival slip was one way of doing it. Queen Shajarat Durr, seething with rage at her second husband, who betrayed her and ridiculed her in public after she helped him seize power, ordered her men to murder him in the bath, where he was unarmed and unguarded, Zuhdi said.
One of three coups d'etat planned against former president Adib Sheshakly was concocted and uncovered in one of Damascus' Turkish baths. T.E. Lawrence, World War I's Lawrence of Arabia, and Max von Oppenheim, his German counterpart and a spy for the kaiser, used to spread rumors in the majestic baths of Aleppo.
The eyes of most Syrians, whether women, government officials or academics, sparkle at the mention of hammams, a link to their childhood and inner selves and the splendors of the past.
But now the 16 or so hammams left in Damascus are run down and slipping into oblivion.
"In the bath, men and women sense a total desire in themselves, an unspoken feeling," Zuhdi said, summing up the Syrians' unending affair with the hammam. "It is the search for unadulterated beauty and truth."