First constructed around 1336، the al-Ayn bathhouse fell into disrepair during the mid-20th Century. But after years of meticulous restoration، it’s ready to open its doors again، BBC reported.
Hidden below the streets of Jerusalem، an ancient hammam، or bathhouse، is coming back to life. After sitting unused since the early 1970s and falling into disrepair، the al-Ayn bathhouse، built in the 14th Century، along with the Khan Tankiz plaza above it and the nearby al-Shifa bathhouse، have recently undergone extensive renovation. And this summer، the al-Ayn hammam will once again come into full operation، offering visitors the chance to indulge in steam baths and other spa treatments. (Credit: Sara Toth Stub)
of its kind
Built around 1336، this bathhouse originally served Muslim pilgrims who wanted to engage in ritual washing before prayers at the nearby al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock shrine، along with merchants and local residents who simply washed here for hygiene purposes. But once plumbing became common in local homes about a century ago، fewer people came to bathe at hammams and they eventually fell into disuse by the mid-20th Century. Aside from some Jerusalem hotels that include modern bathhouses as part of their spa complexes، the restored al-Ayn is the city’s only functioning hammam، as the neighbouring al-Shifa bathhouse has been transformed into an art gallery and event space.
“Opening this up again as a hammam is important because that is the only way to preserve this cultural heritage، else the space just goes to waste،” said Arnan Basheer، director at the Centre for Jerusalem Studies at al-Quds University، which helped oversee the renovation and now operates the site. (Credit: Sara Toth Stub)
The wooden latticework and red، white and black colour scheme in the hammam’s reception room recalls the original style of the bathhouse. While the renovation project did not change the architectural layout or design of the hammam، it did add modern amenities like electrical lighting and showers. Once fed by rainwater collected in cisterns and natural spring water diverted from the hills outside the city walls، the bath complex and the fountain now rely on modern plumbing. Here، visitors can relax and socialise while waiting for spa treatments.
This area is also available for special events. "In the past this bathhouse played an important social role، and we are helping that make a comeback today،" Basheer said. "The Old City doesn't have many spaces for this." (Credit: Sara Toth Stub)
The al-Ayn hammam contains several domes of varying sizes، which let in light through holes covered by blue and yellow stained glass. These domes are similar to those in bathhouses in Damascus، suggesting that builders and artisans came from Syria to build the structures in Jerusalem، according to Tawfiq Da’adli، an archaeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Further excavations during the renovation project also revealed an additional third bathhouse، which shared a furnace with al-Ayn. While the newly discovered bathhouse، which sits below the nearby Ohel Yitzhak synagogue، is not currently open to the public، archaeologists have said it further reveals the complex and grand nature of the original structure. (Credit: Sara Toth Stub)
Much of the original stone and tile work is intact، and bathers can sit on centuries-old stone benches while soaking up the steam and admiring architectural details like grand arches and floors decorated with colourful marble star patterns.
“Although it changed hands many times، the bathhouse has kept [its] basic architectural features،” said Yusuf Natsheh، professor at Jerusalem’s Al Quds University and director of archaeology at the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf، which oversees the Khan Tankiz site as well as other significant Muslim sites in Jerusalem’s walled Old City. (Credit: Sara Toth Stub)
and challenging process
The bathhouses’ road to restoration has been long، with the Islamic Waqf drafting renovation plans back in the 1980s، but always lacking sufficient funds until the European Union helped finance the current project as part of a larger programme to protect cultural heritage in Jerusalem، Natsheh said. The restoration effort، which also involved oversight from the Israel Antiquities Authority، took five years. (Credit: Sara Toth Stub)
The courtyard next to al-Ayn hammam sits just off Jerusalem’s Cotton Merchants Market، once an economic hub for fabric dealers and a place for travellers and pilgrims to water and feed their camels after arriving to the city. Today this courtyard is a still a place where visitors can relax، while adjoining rooms are used by Al Quds University for academic programmes and Arabic language lessons. (Credit: Sara Toth Stub)
The 14th-Century bathhouse project also included the enlargement of the nearby Cotton Merchants Market with the addition of an elaborate gate that separates the shopping area from the famous al-Aqsa mosque complex. This covered street is still a marketplace today، but sells mainly sweets، souvenirs and practical items، like prayer rugs and scarves for pilgrims heading to the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque.
Al Quds University، which operates the hammam complex، has no plans to sell towels، sponges، soaps or other spa-related products in hopes that the market merchants will begin to carry these items. “The revived hammam will also be a way to revive the market،” Basheer said. (Credit: Sara Toth Stub)