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Summer 2008

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

A bather lies on the fasqiya, an octagonal slab, as light shines through the few holes that have not been plugged. The idea is to stop heat escaping and children snooping, but Ashraf, the owner, can’t afford to fix the broken glass

Shut for bathing for the past 25 years, the hammam Saliba has been turned into a factory containing tiny workshops. A craftsman is tooling leather in the room that used to house the pool

This is the lodge, where the owner—a retired colonel from the Egyptian army—used to keep the wooden chests that stored bathers’ things. Now he has blocked up the door with his own stuff—a radio, calendars and calligraphy

The days stretch out when there are no bathers. Essam, the owner, works in the foreign ministry in the morning and the hammam in the evening. He fills the hours by going online or playing cards. Look out for the cat—and the chicken

Around the central room of the bath, four small alcoves, known as maghtas, dispense hot steam. The few clients can soak in the boiling-hot water of the pool

A far cry from “One Thousand and One Nights” and the luxury of the orientalists. The walls are covered in saltpetre, which is not particularly clean. And yet the steam bath is still somewhere to think, to come to fortify yourself before an important decision

One of Cairo’s oldest baths, catering for an all-male and mostly poor clientele. The mirror frames faces that are worn from the struggle to survive

Anyone who needs a few hours’ escape from the infernal rhythm of the town can rent space here. The money helps the baths to stay open

The only thing left in the entrance hall is the manager’s lodge, some magnificent marble columns and the lockers, carved out of the stone, where you would put your wooden sandals. Twenty years ago the bath was completely restored—and then, mystifyingly, closed down

The entrance is through a long basement passage, which enables you to leave behind the noise of the street. It keeps the entrance hall warm—and prevents passers-by from ogling clients

Five centuries ago, this hammam was built near the port of Wekalat Al-Balah, where boats were loaded with rice and dates. The sailors came to the baths for therapy; you can still get a vigorous massage on the marble slab. The owner himself painted the striplights red, green and blue