There are experiences I always associate with particular countries. For example when I travel to the Middle East my experience hasn’t officially begin until I’ve smoked an apple shisha, Mexico its street food and New Zealand it’s a swim at the beach near to where I grew up.
Whilst in Central and South Asia it’s the chance to sweat from every pore and have layers of skin rubbed from me in traditional bathhouses. I’ve been beaten in Hungary, whipped by sticks in Uzbekistan, and scraped with what felt like sandpaper Morocco but there is no doubt about it, when I walk out I feel like a new man.
After arriving to the bustling city of Tehran in Iran, I expected there to be a range of bathhouse choices from the more touristic down to the proper working mans bathhouse. Instead I found Iran embracing the modern era where there doesn’t appear to be a need for the humble bathhouse. When I asked at the hotel, all the men talked about establishments which had long since closed down.
What is a bathhouse and why the attraction?
Bathhouses existed prior to the Islamic period in the Iranian cultural ara and have a longstanding path in tradition, but if you sweat the more modern meaning, they are essentially a place where locals go to get clean, shave, be massaged and discuss home and work life with other men (and women just not the same day).
Keep in mind that most family homes weren’t equipped with showers or baths so this was a necessity rather than some strange communal luxury, but it also a place where the poor and middle class came together without judgement from the rich who typically had private baths.
So we’ve established the cleanliness aspect, but they were also an integral part of life where men go to discuss life and business with other men, and women to share gossip with other women, but all the time sweating.
So why is the tradition of Bathhouses disappearing?
Iran’s ornately tiled bathhouses, or hammams as they are better known across Persia, have become a declining necessity in Iranian life. For one, most Iranian homes are fitted with the modern bathroom conveniences such as a shower and/or bath. This means there is little need for hammams so the hourglass of tradition is running thin.
The layout of an Iranian bathhouse
A typical bathhouse consists of three sections enclosed on all sides (sometimes more) which are lit by small shapes and rectangles in the ceiling. The first part of the process is getting undressed and draping yourself in a waist to knee cloth. Sometimes you are expected to bring your own (and soap), sometimes you can purchase it on site and other times its all provided. If you’re unsure best take your own or ask the right questions beforehand. After this the idea is to get clean so after an intense soaping its time to hit the plunge pool or washing it off with buckets provided. After this you are free to trial the different temperature heated rooms, trying to build up to a decent heat. The idea is that people begin with a mild heat which gets progressively hotter and hotter until sweat dripping from every pore.
This would be when wagging tongues would set the world to right, wheelings and dealings would unfold and gossip was washed through the place and down the drains along with buckets of soapy water.
It seems a real shame that Iran is losing this slice of history and what was an integral part of society. A place in the community which united people. Every city I visited in Iran my question was if there were any traditional or working hammams still in operation but the answer was always no.
So if you’re ever in Iran and you have the opportunity to try a hammam then jump at it, if only to admire architectural brilliance. Just think when you’re sitting in those heated rooms how many of Iran’s most important decisions have been dreamt up within those heated walls.
Happy travelling folks!