GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – After dawn prayers in Gaza, a few dozen men descend a metal staircase to gather in the steamy confines of Hamam al-Sumara, a centuries-old bathhouse where residents of the isolated territory find respite and relief.
Stained glass windows in the central dome allow rays of light to pierce the clouds of steam. On the heated marble platforms below, men recline between visits to the steam room or massages.
"I come to this bath for treatment of diseases such as muscle spasms or cramps, getting rid of inflammation," said Shafiq Al-Aqqad. He also comes here to celebrate happy occasions, like weddings.
Historic bathhouses like this one can be found across the Middle East, where they preserve a tradition of public bathing that goes back to ancient times. Hamam al-Sumara, Arabic for the Samaritans' Bath, dates back 1,000 years but has been renovated, most recently in the 1990s by the Palestinian Authority.
Gaza City used to boast a half dozen bathhouses, but most were dismantled to make room for the city's rapid expansion in the last century, including after the 1948 war, when some 200,000 Palestinians came to Gaza after fleeing or being expelled from their homes in what is now Israel. Gaza had previously been home to just 60,000 people.
In more recent times, the surviving bathhouse has actually benefited from the conflict. A blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007 has made it virtually impossible for most residents to leave the narrow coastal strip. Civil servants working for the Western-backed Palestinian Authority meanwhile still receive their salaries despite being ordered not to work with Hamas authorities. The result, bathhouse owners say, is that clients have more time on their hands and fewer ways to spend it.
Visitors pay around $5 to enter the bathhouse, with separate times reserved for men and women. Wearing slippers and towels wrapped around their waists, the men begin with a bracing visit to the steam room, before dousing themselves with cold water. Attendants offer full body scrubs with exfoliating gloves, as well as massages and more specific treatments.
"We deal with several cases of pain in the backbone or legs," said Mohammed Masoud, a physical therapist, as he pressed on the shoulders of a client.
The bathers can then soak in a warm pool beneath the dome before retiring to a lounge area for tea or coffee.