Revival of beloved Hammam Al-Jadeed bathhouse combines art and antiquity in Lebanon

Situated in the picturesque Lebanese coastal city of Saida, Hammam Al-Jadeed is a beautifully preserved 18th century bathhouse. Acquired in 2018 by Said Bacho, Founder and Chairman of the Sharqy Foundation for Cultural Development and Innovation, the sprawling building complex had been largely forgotten.

“Until recently, the previous owners were mysterious; they didn’t let anyone in,” explained Omar Haidar, the Foundation’s chief restoration craftsman. “When it was reopened and we entered for the first time, we were stunned. It was like a voyage in time.”

Photo shows the fountain hall of the 18th century Hammam Al-Jadeed bathhouse. (Karim Sakr)

Inspired by a visit to internationally-renowned British artist Tom Young’s on-site exhibition at the abandoned Grand Hotel in Sofar in 2018, Bacho invited Young to visit Hammam Al-Jadeed in May 2019. Now, this partnership has given birth to a brand new exhibition, appropriately titled ‘REVIVAL,’ which opened Saturday.

“Said didn’t really know what to do with it or how to use it,” Young told Al Arabiya English. “That’s why he invited me to take it onto the next level. I thought it was very beautiful, and like a trip into another world, really.”

Beirut-based artist Tom Young pictured next to one of his paintings at an exhibition at the Hammam Al-Jadeed. (Robert McKelvey)
Beirut-based artist Tom Young pictured next to one of his paintings at an exhibition at the Hammam Al-Jadeed. (Robert McKelvey)

The exhibition, comprising of 60 oil paintings hung in the 10 rooms of the old hammam, has been postponed three times – firstly due to the October 17 protests in 2019, and then twice again in 2020 due to both the Coronavirus pandemic and the devastating August 4 blast at Beirut’s port.

Despite these setbacks, both Young and the Sharqy Foundation remained committed to their vision and their mission to create a positive cultural message of hope and creativity.

Built in 1720, the hammam is a 300-year-old Ottoman bathhouse, the last of a series of hammams in Saida’s old town. (Robert McKelvey)
Built in 1720, the hammam is a 300-year-old Ottoman bathhouse, the last of a series of hammams in Saida’s old town. (Robert McKelvey)

“The general trend in the world is for more populism; more tribalism; more borders,” said Young. “We’re seeing that all over the world, but in Lebanon there’s a particularly extreme example of that. So, the hammam really is the antidote – and, potentially, the medicine – for that, and the fact that it was a place of healing and cleansing is really interesting.”

Built in 1720, the hammam is a 300-year-old Ottoman bathhouse, the last of a series of hammams in Saida’s old town, which also houses many other heritage sites. It remained an important social, economic and cultural center within Saida until the late 1940s, when it was shuttered and closed, as access to water became more widespread and commonplace.

“Although it’s a place for people to come to bathe and then go home, because people didn’t have restrooms or bathrooms in their houses, it was also a gathering place,” explained Bacho. “The poor and the rich would come. All ethnic backgrounds were coming. All the religious groups who were living in Saida – whether they were Christians, Muslims or Jews – would come and use the hammam. It was a melting pot of all the different aspects of society.”

A mother nature triptych shown at the ‘REVIVAL’ exhibition at the Hammam Al-Jadeed. (Karim Sakr)
A mother nature triptych shown at the ‘REVIVAL’ exhibition at the Hammam Al-Jadeed. (Karim Sakr)

Piecing together the building’s long, illustrious history has not been easy. With few records available, Young turned instead to interviewing local residents who could recall when the hammam was still open, while also living and working in Saida, using their stories as inspiration for his paintings.

“I always interview the elderly people, because there’s nothing; no written archive,” Young said. “There were obviously no photographs in such a private place, so there’s nothing to go on apart from the oral testimonies.”

Ibrahim Al Ansari, a local resident, was one of those who came forward to share his fond recollections, which Young complied into a video, screened alongside the paintings.

“I was eight years old when I used to go to the hammam with my mother,” he said. “I would go in with my sisters, naked, to bathe and play. During the holy Islamic occasions, the hammam used to be crowded.

“The domes on the rooftop were decorated with colored glass; blue, yellow, and red colors. It reflected the light beautifully, and it illuminated the space, because there was no electricity back in the day,” he added. “Some guys would climb to the roof, break a piece of the glass, and they would peep at the bathing ladies downstairs.”

Photo shows the stars room of the 18th century Hammam Al-Jadeed bathhouse. (Karim Sakr)

The interior itself is spectacular, even in its current, diminished state. High, vaulted ceilings filled with star-shaped patterns of tiny, colored windows sit above walls dappled with the faded remnants of geometric patterns and beautiful tiled floors.

The restoration team has been careful to ensure that the original elements remain authentic while still incorporating newer, modern technology. Local craftsmen, including metalworkers, stonemasons, and carpenters, have all played an essential part in bringing the hammam back to life once again.

“We are applying a rigorous work process, doing it in the same old fashioned way,” explained Haidar. “We’re working with clay and lime, which lasts much longer than concrete. It’s important to preserve the skill of working like this. We want to do something good for the city, so that people would understand the value of this heritage, and how to deal with it.”

As well as Young’s paintings, the exhibition will also feature documentary film screenings, concerts, theatrical performances, and historical lectures during its two-month duration, along with a series of art therapy workshops for local school children, university students, orphans, and refugee children. An interactive 3D tour is also being developed for those who cannot visit the hammam in person.

“We started the Sharqy Foundation with a mission statement of inspiring and empowering cultural preservation and innovation within Saida, and of course Lebanon overall,” said Bacho. “By doing this, we combine the hi-tech with the old heritage.”

By : Robert McKelvey – Al Arabiya English

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