Edited by Elizabeth Owen
When Bakuvians think of their city’s traditional hamams, they think of light from small windows illuminating yellow-marble rooms swathed in steam, copper jugs full of hot water and the endless sound of water.
But Baku’s hamams are about more than just taking a bath. Even in the age of Facebook, they’re also for socializing.
“The older generation coming here to share the news, they’re still not active Internet users,” says Orkhan Qasimov, director of the roughly 200-year-old Aga Mikayil hamam in the Azerbaijani capital’s Old City. “They have access only to information from TV and newspapers. When something global or important is happening, then they come here to discuss it and even try to find better solutions for these problems.”
Baku’s older hamams, though, seem to serve mostly men, who often frequent them for a spot of networking. Aga Mikayil is open to women only two days a week. (The two genders are kept strictly apart, but semi-clothed male clients did not object to this female photographer’s presence.)
For women, aside from any other purpose, hamams offer the chance for some time to themselves – a serious need in a society where many see women’s primary responsibility as to their families, rather than to individual pursuits. If an Azerbaijani woman comes home late at night after visiting a hamam, though, there is no censure.
That may have to do with the buildings’ past function. In Soviet and earlier times, the hamam doubled as a bathroom for those who had none.
Yet even with their own bathrooms, today some Bakuvians still follow the custom of hefte hamam – a weekly trip to the hamam to bathe.
One middle-aged woman visiting Aga Mikayil says she has done so since childhood and introduced the practice to her sons as well.
“If I had the money to come here more often, I would because I don’t feel myself as clean after taking a bath at home,” says the woman, a hairdresser who gave her name as Gula. “The steam, the sauna, the kise [a body-scrubbing with a glove of rough cloth] make me feel refreshed and purified. . .”
Much of the business of purification falls to the kiseçi or scrubber.In Aga Mikayil’s male section, 68-year-old Alesker Azizov, a former cook from the northwestern mountain town of Sheki, has been at the job for nearly 20 years.
Azizov says his clients, and those of the other kiseçi, 41-year-old Mubariz Gasimov, follow regular weekly schedules – some have been coming to the hamam for as long as he’s been on the job. The two men sometimes substitute for each other, but squabbles, he admits, can break out over foreigners “because they usually pay more” than the standard 10-manat ($5.88) fee.
Traditionally, aside from the hefte hamam, Azerbaijani men and women also individually visited a hamam before their weddings. Family members would make the trip after a funeral to purify themselves, as Islam requires, from any contact with a corpse.
These practices may now occur mostly in private bathrooms, but, for some, modern facilities have none of the “communication and warmth” of an old Baku hamam.
After their baths, massages and scrubbings, Aga Mikayil’s visitors gather in the tearoom for tea with sugar cubes or homemade jam.
Here, female fortune tellers use coffee grinds or tarot cards to predict the future of women customers. Fortune telling, forbidden in Islam, is not seen as the domain of men.
Male or female, no one is in a hurry to leave. “The hamam is a place to relax,” underlines 55-year-old government official Faig Garayev. “It is one of the few places where the devil does not exist.”
“No fights or conflicts are possible here,” he claims.