With a single shot fired by a repressive government on a population intent on revolution, the tranquillity and fragile reputation of an emerging travel destination is shattered. This makes an exquisite travel experience before the dark days of violence even more special, juxtaposing past calm with present calamity, and a reason to hope that Syria soon emerges from its darkest hours to shine again as the Middle Eastern jewel that I discovered just weeks before the stirrings of revolution... As I stretched out upon the marble slab, the pores of my skin teased opened by the steam, I surrendered to the touch of experienced hands. The confidence with which his knowing arms and elbows steered across each sinew of my body speak of the countless muscles he has moulded, squeezed, bent and pummelled over the decades. With each masterful stroke of his palms across my back, I pictured the shopkeepers, the food vendors, the mosque faithful and the wheelbarrow boys that have surrendered their aching bodies to the ancient cleansing rituals of the public bath-house in this quiet corner of the centuries-old market, the souk.
While the idea of sweating, sloughing and soaping up with friends may strike outsiders as bizarre, for the people of the Middle East it is a traditional way of life. Even though showers and private bathrooms arrived in Syria decades ago, ornately decorated hammams (from the Arabic ‘to spread warmth’) still exist in the enchanting cities of Aleppo and Damascus, their doors open to adventurous visitors seeking a cleansing experience that is as much about socialising as it is scrubbing.
In a quiet side street, footsteps from the imposing Umayyad Mosque in central Damascus, the small
stained-glass door of the Al Malek Al Zaher Hammam emits a welcoming glow next to the Zahirriya Library.
Behind it, a traditional greeting – “Al salaam a' Laykum!” – from an elderly man wrapped in a checked sarong and a towel slung over his left shoulder. I’m in luck: today is men’s day – the female clients and staff come tomorrow. Guided across to a changing area where I deposit my clothes and possessions in an old wooden box, I don a freshly-ironed sarong, a snug pair of wooden sandals and a nervous smile.
But I have nothing to fear as I am led towards the inner sanctum of the building, its alabaster columns, marble basins and bronze taps just discernible through the steam. The heavy wooden door slams shut behind me with an echo that resonates back through time.
Here I spend the next half hour lying, corpse-like, upon the heated marble; this is the place my stress and worries have come to die.
Glowing with perspiration, I sit next to a large basin into which the experienced tellak (masseur) dips his glove made of coarse camel hair and scrubs off every dead skin cell – and a few living ones – with long, powerful strokes. I lie down as the tellak blows an enormous cloud of tiny bubbles over my skin from a pillowcase dipped in soapy water. The cleansing bubbles burst as my limbs are squeezed and yanked in every direction, and when I assume the tellak is holding out his hand to say goodbye, I realise that I have ten fingers yet to be clutched, shaken and popped.
Minutes later, swaddled and turbaned in dry towels, I am escorted back to the lobby where I sink blithely into soft cushions. Savouring a cool mint oil facial massage while sipping a gilded glass of
fresh tea, I chat with friendly locals as the crescent moon twinkles through the skylight. The enchantment of this Arabian bliss will, I know, linger far longer than a thousand and one nights.
Likewise, for the Syrians caught in today's bloodshed, may peace be upon them.