In Islamic regions, bathrooms are much more than a humble room where one person performs daily ablutions and necessary bodily functions. During Iran’s Qajar Dynasty (1789-1925), full bathhouses served the purposes of these functions and much more. Bathing is an essential rite performed before eating, prayer, and certain religious ceremonies in Islam. Bathhouses, or hammams, were integral to social and religious life during Iran’s Qajar era.

Cultural Significance

Because of their importance, the center of town housed the hammams. This way, all members of a community could have relatively equal access. Sometimes, there were two separate hammams in one town: one for men and one for women. However, more commonly, the community would designate certain times of day for men to use the single hammam and the rest of the day for women’s use of the hammam. Some hammams even prescribed which gender could come to bathe depending on the day of the week. Typically, the residents of the town or village would each visit the bathhouse once per week. Visiting the bathhouse gave people time to meet up with friends with no other obligations but socializing. Bathing became more than a simple weekly ritual to be completed in as little time as possible. These visits were dedicated to relaxing in the bathhouse for an entire morning or afternoon.

There’s evidence that pre-wedding henna ceremonies, bridal showers, and even childbirth took place in bathhouses. Due to the advent of personal in-home toilets, people could perform ablutions and necessary functions within the privacy of their own homes, hammam use declined and virtually disappeared. A few remain, but they don’t have the social vibrance they once had.

Architectural Layout

Iranian hammams had three separate sections during the Qajar era, classified by purpose and temperature. The first section- the semi-hot and semi-humid area- contained the entrance, foyer, and changing rooms. The following section- the hot, humid area- included the hallway and the actual baths. These different areas of the hammam were connected by narrow and tortuous passageways to preserve the climate in each section. The winding tunnels separating the sections kept the air inside the hammam free of dust and outside debris, and they created small wind tunnels to provide relieving breezes to the bathers, depending on the air pressure between chambers. Finally, the last section of the bathhouse, furthest away from the entrance, was the khazineh, the “very hot, very humid” section. The khazineh was a massive basin filled with water. A furnace beneath the basin heated the water in the bathhouse and created rejuvenating steam.

There were always several pools within the sections housing the baths (the hot and humid section of the bathhouse). The largest was for hot water, and there was also a pool of cool water. Sometimes there would even be a third pool, depending on the population in the area.

Bathhouses, especially in urban areas, were not small, humble buildings. The hammam had multiple domes in their vaulted ceilings, with pillars upholding them. They were also beautifully decorated. Since traditional Islamic art forbade depictions of humans and animals, artists created dazzling patterns and geometric designs. The effect was breathtaking, and these forms were also valuable for guided meditation, especially as one reclined and reflected in the hammam’s pools.

The ceilings of these buildings were high and topped by a dome, as is conventional in most Islamic architecture. The reason for the high ceilings was so that air could still circulate amidst a large number of bathers, and no one would overheat, even with the hot water and steam generated by the khazineh. Many Qajar-era bathhouses in Iran had a skylight included in the roof so bathers could see within the building without using torches or lamps, which may upset the climate of the hammam’s different sections. The high ceilings, domes, passageways, and skylights all worked together to preserve the proper lighting, ventilation, and atmosphere for the appropriate hammam experience.

Modern Implications

Even though the oldest of these Qajar dynasty bathhouses were built two and a half centuries ago, we have a lot to learn from their structural designs. Without electricity and modern building materials, these structures have not only survived in some places in Iran (even if only in ruins); hundreds of thousands of people used them over centuries as places of comfort, refuge, and revitalization. The builders made the structures themselves from desert brick or adobe (brick mixed with straw), which was the material readily available in Iran’s arid climate. Adobe tends to absorb heat during the day, which keeps those inside cool, and then it releases that heat at night, warming up the desert nights. By using indigenous building materials and clever architectural designs, Iranian builders during the Qajar period could maximize comfort both inside a building and outside on the narrow streets. Even bathhouses included overhanging protrusions that could shade the adjacent alleyways.

From these amazing structures, modern architects can rediscover how to use the resources endemic to the land around them to create buildings with the lowest environmental footprint. Architects and designers can also learn how to maximize cool spaces in hot climates to decrease or eliminate the need for air conditioning. We can use these Qajar bathhouses and bathrooms to resurrect old techniques that might help us create new technology for the future of green architecture while preserving the beauty and genius of the past.

Resources Referenced: