Baños árabes

30 October 2008

In Al-Andalus, the Arab baths served the same type of social function as the Roman thermae, or the Greek gymnasia, or the Turkish hamam: public, communal, with rooms & pools of different temperatures, to be used over the course of hours, anointings of oil, scraping of sweat & dirt with bronze instruments, leisure.

I visited the resorted ruins of Jaén’s baños árabes, beneath a 16th century palace & museum, last Sunday – woke up early, took my café down the street, & got lost in the old town west of the cathedrál, whose streets are so narrow that at times I could not have put both arms out, and which process straight uphill, so that even lost I knew I was going in the more or less the right direction, and after I little while I found myself quite suddenly in a sunlit plaza in front of a palacio– de Villardompardo, as it turned out, all white stucco & dark hardwood frames, with a sunlit marble-tiled atrium inside. The atrium was enclosed by glass & was a kind of arcade, five stories high, with abundant darkleafed greenery & easily confused hallways leading this way & that.

The baths are below it all – they were closed when the Christians retook the city, running water & communal bathing being a despised quality of the Moorish enemy, and at one point used as a tannery. You descend stone basement stairways, walk over a long hallway floored with glass, over hermetically sealed Roman ruins – worn stones, foundations of buildings, with green moss growing on them, kept at a constant temperature by fans & humidifiers, your feet suspended above it all – an odd feeling – and descend further, into absolute quiet, cold stone. The ceilings are vaulted & domed in brick & have starshaped holes at regular intervals to let daylight in. I wonder briefly what the baths must have been like in rainstorms. They are mosaicced and tiled, although most of the decorative elements have been stripped. There is a quiet stillness, rooms of five different temperatures (now a uniform & unchanging chill), the ubiquitous horseshoe arches, the vaulting, spacious feeling Moorish architecture gives you. Very little remains.

Above is the real attraction – the baths being lovely and all, but the work of twenty minutes at most: the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares, housed inside the body of the palace above the ruins of the baths.


The museum (of popular [folk] art & culture) is nothing less than a history via artifact of the whole of preindustrial Andalucía. It’s as though somebody filled a room with the objective correlatives to Fernand Braudel’s The Stucture of Everyday Life. Rooms of the old palace, beautiful spaces in their own right, with ruddy tiling on the floor, potted plants, good light, are dedicated to Water, Grain, Olives, Textiles, the Home, Childhood. There are worn millstones engraved withwheat or ears of corn, unglazed clay jars for water, leather chests riveted with brass tacks, shovels & rakes made out of wood, brooms that are a bundle of twigs tied together, breadmolds, wire screens for sifting chaff, warped iron shears, a long series of implements & wood & metal machinery used to transform raw wool into yarn.

Everything is unique, worn down, repaired & re-repaired, mismatched, illfitting, made with a lack of precision completely foreign – to my eyes, to machine-made things. There are carts with wooden wheels, iron sheathing the rims. Saddles, bits, & bridles. Old classroom benches, painted green. Schoolbooks & picturebooks & a century’s worth of old dolls & tin or lead soldiers painted different colors & a metal cannon like the one my father played with as a child, that still is in my grandparent’s house and probably dates to the forties, an array of red or blue toy rifles & popguns, halfsize, with wood stocks. A set of 19th century handpainted playing cards, with different suits: Cups, Stars, Swords, & Clubs. There is no queen; the face cards progress from an unmounted man-at-arms, weapon in hand, to a mounted knight or cabellero, to the king himself.

There is an old mantlepiece icon: the Virgen de las Angustias, patron of Granada, the picture blackened by the soot of countless fires, the frame elaborate & engraved with words, the Virgen herself almost obscured completely, looming out of shadow, wearing a crown & hugely pregnant, on her womb a map of the world.

Everything is presented together, ahistorically, without dates – it could be three hundred years old, it could be eighty.

In a room with textiles & fabric are traditional clothes hung on mannequins. There is a traje de fiesta – an elaborate fiesta dress from Úbeda, worn for the paseo, for féria, rarely otherwise. Men wore linen shirts with collars, & a kind of rough brown wool cape, embroidered with thread. There is a sewing machine, black, inlaid with gold – the best machines here, the old handcrafted bourgeois machines, are works of art. One very long hall with a black & white checker tile floor and blue & yellow & white painted tiles on the facing of the fireplace is stuffed with lit glass cabinets of fine china, from floor to ceiling, notable & a little breathtaking just because of the length of the room and the accumulation.

Outside, there is a hallway witha series of old, sepia photographs – turn of the century. Andalucía at first looks like nothing more than a Sergio Leone western. I don’t know another way to put it. The similarity is striking. There is the interior of a one-room house, floored with unmortared tile, soot stains on the plastered walls, herbs hanging from the ceiling, the woman cooking in the fireplace. Men wear widebrimmed hats & ponchos. Women are all in headscarves. The floors are dirt, or rough woodplanks over dirt, or tile laid on top of dirt. A photograph of a town plaza during siesta shows about thirty men, and a few laden mules, lying in the shadow of one big tree. In the sunlight, nothing moves. Another one shows women carrying those ceramic jugs I saw lining up at the village fountain (pool?) for water, and men next to them watering their horses. One titled “La Féria” looks like Coney Island in 1905. Clothes are washed in midwinter in snowcovered streams. “Hombres Comiendo Migas” has seven or eight, half sitting, gathered expectantly around a sloping iron pan over a small fire in the middle of a terraced plaza.

After couple of hours I leave and go out into the plaza and sit down and think for a while. The palace has been built & rebuilt. You can see the foundations of different buildings, the differences in the brick, the patchwork. The plaza is planted with palms & with lime trees. In the fountain, a swan is strangled by a bronze snake, water spouting from its arched neck & gaping beak. The sun is out in full. In the center of town, in front of the Cathedral, thirteen-year-olds are getting confirmed, and afterwords, wearing bright red robes & little portraits on gold chains around their necks, they walk through the plazas with their parents.

I think, wordlessly, and I don’t really know how to describe it, of our alienation, our profound alienation, from traditional ways of life & from the past, especially as Americans. Braudel, whose book I wasn’t able to carry with me, writes, summing up his own point:

”It is quite easy to imagine being transported to, say, Voltaire’s house at Ferney, and talking to him for a long time without being too surprised. In the world of ideas, the men of the 18th century are our contemporaries: their habits of mind and their feelings are sufficiently close to ours for us not to feel we are in a foreign country. But if the patriarch of Ferney invited us to stay with him for a few days, the details of his everyday life, even the way he looked after himself, would greatly shock us.”

That the words survive, the ideas coincide, but that the very room in which he wrote, what he would have eaten or done after writing, is inaccessable to us. Lacking the book, all I can do for illustration is turn to John Leonard’s review in the New York Times:

Here is more than we may think we need to know about the hoe and the stove, pack animals and locusts, cod-fishing and iron-forging, white bread and Persian daggers, pepper and beards. Montaigne, for instance, didn’t use a fork. The Chinese word for “chair” is “barbarian bed.” Islamic scissors have hollow blades. After 1600, “State revenue from pulque in New Spain was equal to half the revenue from the silver mines.” Not all windmills turn vertically. The idea of privacy wasn’t invented until the 18th century. Tea is only popular in those countries innocent of vines that yield wine. As European “civilization” evolved toward what we now know as “capitalism,” it was distinguished by its inordinate consumption of meat and whisky, and its consummate sailing of the high seas.

There is nothing random in Mr. Braudel’s catalogue. […] But general readers, perhaps inclined to a romantic view of the ages, will want to know why they should go through so many chapters on olives, wigs, table manners, gunpowder, mail delivery, water engines, soap and underwear. The reasons are various.

And for me, one of these is that, through catalogue, it becomes harder and harder to fool yourself into thinking that the past was like anything like postmodern American life. That in important ways, it is almost unimaginable.

Nick Tosches writes, in his elaborate headfake of a biography, King of the Jews,

We seek truth and meaning from the lost or shadowy precincts of the past. An absurd pursuit, as we cannot even find these things in the present, which lies – in both sense of the verb – clearly before us. In this search we feel more comfortable with set pieces of fable than with fragments of fact, for fragments can cut and gash and present themselves in isolation from the other, lost fragments of the unknowable whole.

We are drawn to the neatly wrapped sweet that can be grasped by the child’s clutch of our understanding. And we call it history. The fragment can tear and bloody that small, soft clutch.

But a fragment of real history – and thus, by nature, real mystery – is tool as well as weapon: a tool with which we can dig our way to the moment of the present.

For me, so much of the endless distraction, consumption, preoccupation that characterizes our daily life is predicated on forgetting, as often as possible, that the world was not always like this. Films transform the way we picture history front & back, the news cycle revises our eternal present up until the day before yesterday. It becomes impossible to imagine the world without digital media. Without cars whose workings are incomprehensible, driven by computers, the machinery encased in black plastic. Without fruit delivered by airplane. An object in a case doesn’t change any of that. But maybe it can tear & bloody that soft, small clutch.

I got up from where I’d been sitting, on a stone bench next to the fountain, & watched the kids playing in the plaza, and turned towards the cathedral & started to walk down another street I’d never seen before, to try and get lost again.

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