For centuries, public baths were part of the regular hygiene of city dwellers in Egypt. The habit may go back to the Roman period, and it was vigorously pursued in Mamluk and Ottoman times. When the scientists of the French expedition arrived in Egypt in 1798, they admired the local public baths, which they found to be superior to those existing in Europe at the time.
The decline of public baths in Egypt began in the late nineteenth century as a result of the improvements of indoor plumbing.
Some baths have, however, survived.
In "Essay on the Habits of the Modern Inhabitants of Egypt," published in the magisterial The Description of Egypt written by figures on the French expedition, De Chabrol de Volvie wrote that there were more than 100 public baths in Egypt, which people frequented often, especially in winter. In summer, people used the public baths less, as swimming in the river, or the many canals of Cairo, was more refreshing and also cheaper.
Many of the public baths were affiliated with religious establishments in the form of waqf or endowment, an arrangement through which mosques and religious schools earned the revenue of housing and baths.
Amr Ibn al-As, the Arab military commander who entered Egypt in the 7th century, is said to have built a public bath in Al-Fostat, now Masr al-Qadima or Old Cairo. The fourteenth century chronicler Al-Maqrizi credits Fatimid Caliph Al-Aziz Billah of being the first to build public baths in Cairo, a claim that is disproved by evidence, but may indicate the Fatimids' enthusiasm for this particular type of business.
In Ottoman times, public baths became more numerous, and Egyptians from all classes used public baths into the early twentieth century.
People regarded the public bath not just as a way of keeping clean, but as a therapeutic place. Many sought cure or alleviation of their rheumatic ailments in the steam room services, and the energetic sessions of scrubbing and massage that left them relaxed and refreshed.
Public baths were regularly inspected by municipal officials to ensure their cleanliness. People who suffered from leprosy or serious skin diseases were banned from the baths to prevent infection and maintain public health.
In the early nineteenth century, Cairo had over 130 baths. The number dropped by half in the 1880s, due to the widespread introduction of modern indoor plumbing. Now, only 16 baths remain in Cairo, and less than half of those are still in operation.
The design of the public baths has remained more or less unchanged from Fatimid times onwards. Most baths were highly decorative, featuring domes, columns, marble work, colourful glass fenestration, and exotic tiling.
The general layout of the baths is labyrinthine, and relaxing and spacious at the same time. The front gate is usually small but elaborately decorated with stalactites. It is followed by a narrow passage to insulate the warm interiors and provide and quiet for the clients. The corridor opens up to a wide hall where clients leave their belongings called al-maslakh (literally, the peeler), which is roofed with a high dome including a set of windows for lighting.
The maslakh leads to the middle court, called al-sahn, which has an octagonal fountain in the middle and is bordered by wide planks of marble, about one metre high, used as massage tables. The sahn is covered with a cupola with glass-encrusted perforations to offer soft lighting. On the sides of the fountain, there are raised platforms used as sitting benches for the clients while they wait for their massage.
The sahn opens on the sides to beit al-harara (literally, house of heat), which doubles as a hot water pool, or al-maghtas (literally, dipping pool) and a steam room. The water in the pool is usually hot enough to see the steam rising from it. Before coming to the pool, it is piped through a mostawqad, or oven, traditionally heated by animal dung.
Around beit al-harara, there are several side rooms for showering, as well as bathrooms.
A typical bath has about a dozen specialised workers, including:
Al-hammami(literally, the bath man) is the manager of the bath and runs the place and keeps the valuables of the clients.
Al-mekayyesati(literally, the sackcloth man) who scrubs the customers with a glove of rough material
Al-natur(literally, the watchman) welcomes the customers and provides them with towels.
Al-mezayyen(literally, the beauty man) is the barber who shaves the customers.
In the women baths, in addition to the above, we find:
Al-ballana(literally, the washerwoman) is a masseuse and henna artist.
Al-mashta(literally, the comber), is a hairdresser and beauty specialist.
Among the public baths still in operation, the best known is Hammam Margush, or Hammam Al-Malatili, in Amir Al-Guyush Street in Al-Gammaleya. It has acquired additional fame because of Yousef Abu Seif's 1973 film bearing its name (although the film scenes were shot in the studio).
According to Moallem Zeinhum, who runs Hammam al-Malatili, the bath was built in 1780 and it was named after Sayyed al-Malt, who used to work there.
The bath is open in the morning for women and in the evening for men. It operates under the supervision of the antiquity, health, and environment departments and is protected by the law of Islamic monuments.
Down from the dozen workers or so, Al-Malatili now has only two workers. The customers are mostly young Egyptians who frequent it for the soothing ambiance, as well as tourists. The bath workers till employ the same material of old times, including the rough woolen glove used to scrub dead skin, and the pumice stone, used to soften the feet.
In Hammam Al-Talat, or the Tuesday Bath, clients are often brides preparing for their wedding night. This is the occasion in which the beauty experts, the ballana and mashta, offer their top services, including a full body mask made of orange peel, crushed lemons, sandal wood, and lupine powder.
A regular bath routine takes almost two hours, beginning with a shower and a dip in the hot pool, then a period of lounging in and around the pool. After this customers are soaped, scrubbed, and massaged near the fountain. Then they usually hang around for a hot drink and a plate of fruit.