Hammam al-Jadeed, an 18th-century bathhouse situated in the heart of Sidon’s old souk, has reopened after almost 70 years for an art exhibition.
Built in 1720 and shut in the 1940s – when the hammam fell out of use because local houses received municipal water – the 10-room hammam sat derelict until 2018. Sharqy Foundation founder Said Bacho acquired the building hoping to renovate it into something usable one day.
Now “Revival,” an exhibition by Beirut-based British artist Tom Young, has reactivated the forgotten space. The show’s 60-odd paintings reimagine the hammam in its heyday, as well as reflecting its present state.
Meant to open in the Fall of 2019, the exhibition was delayed three times due to popular protests, the Coronavirus lockdown and the Aug. 4 blast. Young has spent the year painting on site at the hammam, absorbing the feel of the place and learning about its history.
“I was enchanted by how beautiful it was and how it’s still retained its historical texture,” Young told The Daily Star. “They hadn’t cleaned it up. They’d just put mood lighting in the rooms, weren’t doing anything with it and let people in.
“It was actually the last major hammam to be built in Saida. It was built by a Moroccan architect who did a lot of work in Saida and was connected to the big Christian aristocratic families,” he added. “It closed in 1949, so the people who remember it have to be in their 80s or 90s. We tracked them down, and we were able to piece together this amazing story of how it was a place of harmony between the Muslims, Christians and the Jewish minorities as well.”
The Sharqy Foundation describes itself as being dedicated to socially responsible projects in the arts and culture, educational-touristic sector. In 2009 Bacho acquired the building alongside the hammam that housed a furnace that had heated the bathhouse water. Having retooled the furnace building into a café, Bacho intends to make the hammam a cultural space to be used for exhibitions and community events.
“We started looking into ways of not only restoring and renovating parts of it, but keeping its original and authentic look and feel,” Bacho said. “During the Lebanese Civil War and 1982 invasion of Lebanon, one of the biggest rooms suffered roof damage, but other than the damage of time, it’s in really good shape to tell its story.
“Part of it is a real estate investment but part of it is about my passion for heritage and to give back to the community, do something meaningful in these troubled times.”
The full restoration, headed by Omar Haidar, will be done gradually, using historic techniques to be as accurate as possible.
With little documentation available about the bathhouse’s history, oral testimonies have been key to understanding the space’s role in the community. Young has put together a series of interviews with local residents who still remember the place when it was functioning, which will show alongside the artwork.
The paintings themselves show the bathhouse in its former glory, with people gathered in the pools or lounging around the sides. Some are focused on the atmosphere of the place and the importance of the role of water, alongside pieces showing the modern Sidon city and coast.
“The sound of flowing water and the refreshing cool sensation in the air from it when you walk in is a feature of the whole experience and I’ve expressed that in my paintings,” Young said. “A lot of the paintings are about water and also the sea, because Saida is so connected to the sea, the sun, moon and stars – which are also [motifs] of the hammam’s architecture.”
To encourage interaction, a public program has been planned for the duration of the exhibition, including documentary screenings, concerts, performances and historical lectures. Visits from local school children, refugees and orphans have also been planned, seeking to teach them about harmonious living and using art as an educational tool.
“It’s a symbol of what Lebanon needs to be perhaps, this endurance, so it could be inspirational for people,” Young said. “It will spread some good energy I think and hopefully regenerate some business in the souk.”
“Revival” is up through Dec. 31, Tuesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Hamman al-Jadeed, Sidon.