Sip mint tea and enjoy the sybaritic pleasures experienced by the Caliph during the 10th century. Luxuriate in the Arab baths. Have your body perfumed with exotic oils and relax under the expert hands of your personal masseur.
At its height, during the 10th century AD, Cordoba had over 500,000 inhabitants and they all, from Caliph to slave, demanded access to bath houses. To cater for the population there were 300 in the city ranging from very simple affairs with little or no decoration to those enjoyed by the Caliph and his close family and advisors. The Caliphate world was very socially structured with every person knowing their place and that extended to bathing. No matter what your station though, the bath house was were you could meet associates, have a game of chess and generally relax. If you could afford it there was mint tea to refresh and a massage to relax.
In Cordoba the Banos del Alcazar Califal have been preserved. During the Caliphate the baths could be accessed directly from the Alcazar, the formal royal gardens. The baths were used by the Caliph, his family and guests. Formal ceremonies were held there as were political gatherings. Unlike the Romans, the Arabs tended to avoid total immersion in water and relied on steam, sweating and massage to keep clean.
The cleaning ritual was a progression from one room to another. First they would enter the cold room, the Bayt al Barid, where basins of cold water were available. Then would come the warm room, the Bayt al-Wastany. This room would have a bath but that would mainly be used for therapeutic reasons by the sick. Finally the Bayt al-Sajun, the hot room, which resembled a Turkish bath in atmosphere, that is steamy hot, although the technology was slightly different. There would be a bath full of hot water and adjoining that there was a shower. A large bronze boiler fed hot water through pipes in the floor and walls keeping the surfaces hot as well as the water.
It was in the warm room that most of the action took place. Here the Caliph would perform his daily ablutions, shaving, hairdressing, a massage and dressing. It was in this room that the Caliph held court.
The whole complex was richly decorated with candy striped columns supporting elaborate arches with murals on the walls and geometric shapes cut through the roof that allowed light to pierce the steam. Leaded lights in strong colours prevented the rain from entering the skylights and added yet another element to the experience.
In the city there are still a couple of bath houses that allow you to immerse yourself in history. To allow for more western habits the style has been changed a little but the sybaritic pleasure is the same.
First you are greeted as you enter a reception room. Mint tea is served before you are taken to the changing rooms. Here you take a shower before entering the Bayt al Barid. There are two baths here, both full of frigidly cold water. One is the size of a large domestic bath but a little deeper, the other is somewhat larger but shallow. In this room you chose the oil with which you would like to be massaged, lavender, orange blossom, red amber or jasmine.
The Bayt al-Wastany contains a large bath, perhaps 1 metre deep. Around the perimeter is a step to allow you to sit up to your neck in the pleasantly hot water. In this position you will notice the decorated tiles and the geometric skylights above. At one end of the room massage tables await. More mint tea is served.
Then we enter the Bayt al-Sajun. A small pool the size of a large domestic bath is full of near scalding hot water and a door leads through to a Turkish bath.
The idea is to stimulate yourself in the cold water, then relax in the warm water and follow that with a session in the Turkish bath, in the hot water pool, or both, before a massage relaxes every muscle in your body. The actual succession of cold, warm and hot is up to you, some people avoid the cold altogether and just alternate between warm and hot.
Treat yourself, be a Caliph for the day, or his concubine.
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Nick has lived and worked in Andalucia for over 20 years. He and his partner, Julie Evans, have travelled extensively and dug deep into the history and culture, producing authoritative articles on all aspects of the region. Nick has written four books about Andalucia and writes articles for other websites and blogs.
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