When Napoleon visited Egypt his scientists counted more than fifty bathhouses in Cairo. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in some instances, over seventy public baths were counted. The public bathhouse, called hammam in Arabic, was once an integral part of society and played a vital role in the lives of Egyptian citizens. In a world where indoor plumbing was uncommon, the opportunity to visit these places, to purify oneself in hot baths, to get scrubbed and cleaned was of great importance. In fact, these bathhouses attained great social significance as the place where people met up, struck business deals, relaxed and talked. At a certain point the hammams developed such a prominent role in the lives of men and women, that when a baby was born, one of the first things it would receive as a present was a pair of wooden bath clogs, qabqab in Arabic...
For women living in the nineteenth century, in the upper class of Egyptian society, going to the bathhouses was one of the very few instances when they would leave their houses and visit a public place. The accessories that came with these baths, objects for beautification, purification and body treatment, played an important role in society. By using materials of the highest quality, men and women were able to present their wealth. These accessories were worn and carried around with great pride and became a way to display status or indicate social class in a place where, without these objects, everybody looked similar. Wooden clogs were even given as diplomatic gifts, especially during the Ottoman Empire, when the bathhouse and its ritual culture reached its peak.
Inside a bathhouse in Cairo a woman might have found herself wandering through a string of interconnecting rooms, the floors covered with tiles or marble slabs. These stone floors were heated to a point that they became uncomfortable to walk on. Also, water regularly gushed over them, as runoff from the stone slabs where the bathhouse clientele were scrubbed down. Water from the individual baths or washings ran over the floors as well. This water was mixed with oily substances, soap and mud, all combined with the dirt from the bodies being washed and scrubbed. The floors of the bathhouses were therefore slippery, gritty and often too hot for the skin of the feet to remain on comfortably. Primarily for these reasons, clogs were worn inside the baths. These clogs were traditionally made from one solid piece of wood, with two vertical supports, lifting the wearer above the ground, and sometime reaching stilt-like heights. The clogs were called qabqab in Arabic, an onomatopoetic name, based on the sound they make when the wearer walks on a stone floor.
The diversity of shapes and materials used for the qabqabs was enormous. The clogs varied in the species of wood, decoration, craftsmanship and in the height of the supports. Often hard, solid woods were used; platanus, walnut, ebony and sandalwood are just a selection of the woods used. From one piece of wood, the supports and the sole of the clog were cut into a variety of different shapes, but always with a rounded heel and a somewhat protruding front. The wood was often decorated with inlay. Some researchers have suggested that, when wearing really high clogs, the wearer needed to be supported by servants. It is said that the higher the heels of the qabqab, the higher the social status the woman wearing them. This is reinforced by the idea that if you were rich, or a high status lady, you could also afford the support of servants to help you move around.
Nowadays, in the remaining hammams of Cairo, the qabqabs are no longer worn. Creaking slippers have now replaced the clogging sound.In a world where most newly built houses have some form of shower or bath, there is no longer a need for these bathhouses. However, some hammams have survived and are still functioning in Cairo today, although their historic splendor is no longer visible. Bathhouses are not en vogue as places of personal hygiene anymore. The objects once used there, such as metal bowls, towels, elaborate soap containers and qabqabs, have now reached the realm of wearable heritage, displaying the cultural values of earlier centuries. They are kept in museums and private collections as objects of nostalgia and for us to see their glory.
This blogpost was published in a more extended version in my book: Egypt's Wearable Heritage. For more information on this publication, please visit the publisher's website.