Résumé de A. MEIER

Bathhouses in the Countryside of Ottoman Damascus. A Preliminary Enquiry

Astrid MEIER
History Department University of Zurich – SUISSE

Type de contribution : communication longue

In his memoirs, Muhammad Kurd ‘Ali mentions how his father used to entertain his share-croppers and the village notables of Jisrin on their yearly visit to Damascus by bringing them to « the best bath – the bath of Qishani » (Memoirs of Muhammad Kurd Ali. A selection, transl. Kh. Totah [Washington 1954], p. 4). The public bathhouse was a major urban attraction not only in the late 19th century. Yet, the visit of « outsiders » posed specific problems, if we can take some 16th century Ottoman court documents of Jerusalem at their face value. Amnon Cohen describes an interesting if somewhat puzzling case as follows: « On January 6, 1547, the operator of one of the bathhouses … was accused of giving the clients old, worn-out towels. The accused denied the charge in court, saying that he had given those towels only to ‘fellahin, to Jews, and to Christians’. The kadi ignored this defence and ordered him to begin using ‘new, clean towels’ and to distinguish clearly between those for Muslims and those for peasants and ahl al-dhimma. The operators of other bathhouses in Jerusalem were required to do the same » (Jewish Life under Islam [Cambridge 1984], p.138). This raises the question of on what grounds and in what ways « fellahin », peasants or villagers in general were a distinct category of customers. It also raises the question whether bathing was an exclusive urban practice or not.
The phenomenon of urban bathhouses has solicited considerable scholarly attention in the last few years. Much less is known about bathing in rural settings, as rural life in general is rather hard to grasp in the available sources. At least for the surroundings of Damascus, however, there is ample evidence that many villages were themselves provided with bathing facilities well before the arrival of the Ottomans. Kurd ‘Ali introduces his account of the history of the Ghuta by emphasising as a characterising feature of this landscape the fact that there were « villages like cities (fiha qura mithl mudun) » and that « most of the villages housed a Friday mosque and a bathhouse (fi akthar quraha al-hammamat wal-jawami‘) » (Ghutat Dimashq [2nd ed., Damascus 1952], p. 28).
The phenomenon of rural bathhouses warrants further attention as it promises more insights into the social life of villages and the networks shaping it. It also opens up lines of questioning about the notions of the urban and the rural, city, town and village and what it meant to live in one of these units. In the following I propose a study of the countryside of Damascus as a starting point for a more exhaustive comparison of cases, based on the availability of source material pertaining to this case.

Though it has not been examined in a systematic way, there is ample textual material for such an enquiry. The material remains of bathhouses which maybe could be found on the ground even today are outside the scope of this project. Rural bathhouses figure in the listings of important buildings collected by the chroniclers of the history of Damascus in various periods, from Ibn ‘Asakir, al-Irbili, Ibn Abd al-Hadi and Ibn Tulun well into the Ottoman period. This historiographical material can be complemented by information culled from travelogues and travel guides of various genres, most prominently among them the writings of Evliya Celebi or ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi.
For the Ottoman period, there are also administrative orders and regulations as well as the court registers. As until now, no register of a local nahiya court has come to light, we have to concentrate on the information that can be gained from the main administrative centres. With the help of the other members of the Ottoman bath group, I have collected about 60 documents from the Damascus court registers, dating from the late 16th to the 19th century. A thorough analysis of these acts will provide the backbone of the proposed contribution. They concern about 30 different villages and their respective bathhouses.

Lines of questioning
In my contribution, I propose to examine the available material under different aspects. First there is the need to survey the distribution of bathhouses in the countryside in terms of location and time. Is this distribution fairly stable overlong periods or can we see transformations over time? If there are changes, to what factors can we link them (demography, economic or political, social or cultural)? In order to come to conclusions for such lines of questioning I shall focus on three different aspects that tentatively could be used as starting points blocks for future and more general enquiries into the phenomenon of rural bathing:

a) Architectural features and models
Examining the architectural features and models as described in the source material will enable to connect the specific case study to the ongoing discussions of the types of bathhouses found in the various parts of the Ottoman world (M. Dow, The Islamic Baths of Palestine [Oxford 1997]; A. Meier, « Bathing as a Translocal Phenomenon? Bathhouses in the Arab Provinces of the Ottoman Empire », in Bathhouses in Anatolia and Beyond, ed. by N. Ergin [Istanbul, in print]). This line of questioning allows to highlight one aspect of the cultural embeddedness of bathing as a on-going process influenced by competing models between the rural and the urban but also between the local, the « regional » and the imperial.

b) Rural bathhouses as sites of investment
The source material also allows for some remarks on the legal transactions related to rural bathhouses and to trace some developments as to the financial background needed to run a bath in a village setting. Taken together, these transactions are not out of the ordinary if compared with those concerning their urban counterparts. They range from simple rent contracts over sales and endowments to various long-term financial operations (hikr, mursad) establishing multi-layered webs of rights in terms of ownership, possession and usufruct. They become however significant if seen against the background of whom they concern and the sums involved.

c) Rural bathhouses as sites of domination
A preliminary examination of the court documents has pointed to the variety of property relations that manifest themselves around the phenomenon of village baths. As to be expected, ownership of bathhouses can be vested in various types of endowments, ranging from the imperial to the small local family trust. However, a high proportion of rural bathhouses are private property. This is particularly interesting as bathhouses belong to the legal category of property not apt to be divided (ghayr mu‘add lil-qisma). The networks manifest in the shared holding of bathhouses promise to provide some insights into the power relations in a specific rural setting and to shed some light on the social groups that dominate them in changing economic and political contexts. I shall not examine the large foundations of Ottoman governors like Sinan Pasha and Lala Mustafa Pasha in the hinterland of Damascus, as they are the object of a separate contribution.


L'identifiant "Balnéorient" regroupe deux des membres du projet éponyme, Th. Fournet (Ifpo) et B. Redon (HiSoMA), en charge de la mise en ligne des billets. Ces derniers sont cependant souvent le fait d'autres participants au programme. Ils sont dans ce cas signalés comme auteur.

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