I first tasted the sweetness of Eastern life in the work of 19th-century orientalists such as Flaubert, Dumas, Ingres and Delacroix. For the past eight years, as a photographer, I have searched for it in Arab baths, or hammams, from Mauritania to Central Asia. My pictures are now devoted to an architectural and cultural heritage that is about to disappear: the baths of Cairo.
They say that in the reign of the Mamluks—from 1382 to 1517—there were 365 hammams in Cairo, one for each day of the year. Today only a dozen or so are left. Some date back to the 14th century. Their disappearance may not be as spectacular as the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, but it is just as inexorable.
In the old parts of Cairo, the houses have no real sanitation. Even so, hardly anyone visits the hammams—although they are open day and night—because they have this seedy reputation. They are the most run-down baths in the Arab world.
Ever since radical groups set out to impose the sort of strict morals embraced by the Taliban, the baths have been seen as a subversive place: a couple of decades ago it was in the hammams that the opposition would meet to organise resistance to the Egyptian government. The fundamentalists associated the hammams with homosexuality, which gave them a bad reputation. And, although there is no gay scene as such, it is true that certain baths were havens for gays.
The baths are also dangerous because they are one of the last places where women are free to let down their guard (men are not allowed in). They can spend a whole day in a hammam—with their children, perhaps. When little boys see women naked for the first time, it can awaken the senses—and that is dangerous, too.
Ideology is not the only thing driving clients away. The authorities told the owners “you are plundering the ground water”, or “you are polluting the air”. For centuries people brought along waste that was chucked into enormous boilers which heated water for the baths. But they ordered the baths to use gas-heating—at ruinous expense. No bathers, no money, no upkeep.
Over the years, the decay and the seediness became disastrous. So the state decided that the last hammams in Cairo should be designated as historic monuments. Now their owners have to ask the inert Egyptian bureaucracy for authorisation before they make even the smallest repair.
To make ends meet, some owners earn a few piastres by taking in the homeless, outcasts, people from the countryside, and fellahs from High Egypt. Or they live there with their families. Everything conspires to make the baths unsuitable. In my pictures there are hardly any bathers. And yet beneath their secular vaults, despite the mould, the acrid smells and the seclusion, Cairo’s last hammams are ruled by a tragic pleasure—one that precedes a disaster. ~ ODETTE AUDEBEAU