‘Life of an Afghan Hammam’: a photo essay on a culture’s identity and its preservation

A visual documentation of the destruction and restoration of Hammam Khisti-i-Kopruk, one of Afghanistan's famed heritage sites, from a book written by Tanvi Maheshwari.

by Meghna Mehta Published on : Sep 29, 2020

The hammams (public bath houses) in Afghanistan, are a part of the country’s cultural heritage, which men and women use not only to bathe, but also to socialise and for entertainment. Much like the Vavs (stepwells) in Gujarat, India or the Roman bath houses or the Greek amphitheatres, heritage architecture has a social significance of its own that remains highly momentous to its glorious cultural history and past.

One such example is the famous Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk in Kholm, Northern Afghanistan; built in 1848, the bath house was ravaged by the flood in the Khulm river in 2010. AFIR, a design and architecture firm (with offices in Kabul and Kholm), headed by Anne Feenstra, took up the restoration of the hammam in collaboration with local experts, the government of Afghanistan and the Prince Claus Fund under the Cultural Emergency Response Programme in the Netherlands.

A few years later, the hammam was completely restored and opened for use. Tanvi Maheshwari, an architect with AFIR, who had worked on the refurbishment, published a documented narrative in the form of a book, Life of an Afghan Hammam; Ignited. Extinguished. Rekindled that showcases the story of the incredible structure from its glory to its destruction and finally, its new life. The book was launched in the presence of Sohail Hashmi, Narayani Gupta, Rohit Jigyasu, Robert Mann and many scholars and diplomats, prominently M. Ashraf Haidari, Deputy Ambassador of Afghanistan and Alphonsus Stoelinga, Ambassador of the Netherlands at the India Habitat Centre, in 2013.

The photographs below narrate the enriching value of the hammam, focusing on the aspects that describe the journey to and life in Kholm, its people, the changing weather, the cultural emergency, the period of restoration and the ultimate sense of discovery. The author of the book, Tanvi Maheshwari, recounts the story in her own words through the description of the images.

Despite the asphalted road built in the 60s, the journey from Kabul to Kholm can be treacherous. Depending on the season, the vast expanses seem to be filled with nothing but dust or snow, stretching out as far as eyes can see | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
Despite the asphalted road built in the 60s, the journey from Kabul to Kholm can be treacherous. Depending on the season, the vast expanses seem to be filled with nothing but dust or snow, stretching out as far as eyes can see Image: Anne Feenstra
At its peak, Kholm (or Tashqurghan) was one of the most important trade and cultural centre of northern Afghanistan. It was an important trans-shipment point where caravans from India and Bokhara met | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
At its peak, Kholm (or Tashqurghan) was one of the most important trade and cultural centre of northern Afghanistan. It was an important trans-shipment point where caravans from India and Bokhara met Image: Dilip Banerjee
Darwaza Kohna was one of the many toll gates built to collect tolls from passing caravans. Today the old trading ties to India and Persia are broken, trade has trickled and local crafts are slowly being replaced by mass-manufactured Chinese products| Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
Darwaza Kohna was one of the many toll gates built to collect tolls from passing caravans. Today the old trading ties to India and Persia are broken, trade has trickled and local crafts are slowly being replaced by mass-manufactured Chinese products Image: Himanshu Lal
Historically, the domed roof, or gumbad, has been a common sight in Kholm, made of sun-dried or kiln-baked bricks. Since domes do not require timber beams, this construction technique suits arid climates well | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
Historically, the domed roof, or gumbad, has been a common sight in Kholm, made of sun-dried or kiln-baked bricks. Since domes do not require timber beams, this construction technique suits arid climates well Image: Anne Feenstra
Domes withstand seasonal temperature differences and high velocity winds very well and provide minimal surface for heat transfer, keeping the insides well insulated| Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
Domes withstand seasonal temperature differences and high velocity winds very well and provide minimal surface for heat transfer, keeping the insides well insulated Image: Anne Feenstra
The hammam is more than just a bath house for the people of Kholm. It is a place of warmth in the cold Afghan winters, the harbinger of local news and gossip, and a secret haven for women of Kholm to socialise, away from the prying eyes of men | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
The hammam is more than just a bath house for the people of Kholm. It is a place of warmth in the cold Afghan winters, the harbinger of local news and gossip, and a secret haven for women of Kholm to socialise, away from the prying eyes of men Image: Dilip Banerjee
In the early stages of Islam, no public baths existed in the Muslim world, and they were initially met with prejudice. Slowly, for the sake of cleanliness, first men, and later women, were permitted to use the hammam. Under the conservative rule of the Taliban, women were banned from accessing hammams. In 2001, author Nasrine Gross lamented that it had been four years since many Afghan women had been able to pray as Islam prohibits women from praying without a bath after their period | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
In the early stages of Islam, no public baths existed in the Muslim world, and they were initially met with prejudice. Slowly, for the sake of cleanliness, first men, and later women, were permitted to use the hammam. Under the conservative rule of the Taliban, women were banned from accessing hammams. In 2001, author Nasrine Gross lamented that it had been four years since many Afghan women had been able to pray as Islam prohibits women from praying without a bath after their period Image: Anne Feenstra
Hammams are a peculiar building type, as they rely on the use of abundant amount of water, considered to be one of the detrimental elements to building structures and materials. Hammam Khishti-i-Kopruk receives water from a canal diverted from Darya-i-Kholm. This river is also called the ‘blind river’, since it does not merge into a larger water body, but disappears into the desert | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
Hammams are a peculiar building type, as they rely on the use of abundant amount of water, considered to be one of the detrimental elements to building structures and materials. Hammam Khishti-i-Kopruk receives water from a canal diverted from Darya-i-Kholm. This river is also called the ‘blind river’, since it does not merge into a larger water body, but disappears into the desert Image: Anne Feenstra
The natural delta of Kholm river consists of dozens of smaller rivers that irrigate fields and provide water to many villages. But often torrential downpours in spring cause floods that in turn wreak havoc in these villages | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
The natural delta of Kholm river consists of dozens of smaller rivers that irrigate fields and provide water to many villages. But often torrential downpours in spring cause floods that in turn wreak havoc in these villages Image: Anne Feenstra
Floods are a common malady in Afghanistan, caused by torrential spring downpours and lack of strong reinforcements on river banks. On May 14, 2010, a devastating flood hit Darya-i-Kholm, that damaged Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk situated at its banks. The domes were completely destroyed, but more worryingly, the receding water left behind wet mud filling up the insides like a ticking bomb | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
Floods are a common malady in Afghanistan, caused by torrential spring downpours and lack of strong reinforcements on river banks. On May 14, 2010, a devastating flood hit Darya-i-Kholm, that damaged Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk situated at its banks. The domes were completely destroyed, but more worryingly, the receding water left behind wet mud filling up the insides like a ticking bomb Image: Farhad Jamshid
While in the summer temperatures reach as high as 45 degrees, in winter it can plunge to minus ten. The wet mud threatened to freeze and expand in the oncoming winters, cracking the building open from inside. The AFIR team led by Anne Feenstra, with the support of Omar S. Sultan, Deputy Minister for Information and Culture in Afghanistan, applied for the Cultural Emergency Response Fund at the Prince Claus Fund. They received the greenlight to start work on rekindling the hammam in September 2010 | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
While in the summer temperatures reach as high as 45 degrees, in winter it can plunge to minus 10. The wet mud threatened to freeze and expand in the oncoming winters, cracking the building open from inside. The AFIR team led by Anne Feenstra, with the support of Omar S. Sultan, Deputy Minister for Information and Culture in Afghanistan, applied for the Cultural Emergency Response Fund at the Prince Claus Fund. They received the greenlight to start work on rekindling the hammam in September 2010 Image: Anne Feenstra
On September 25, 2010, the restoration work on Khisht-i-Kopruk began. A team of craftsmen, skilled and unskilled labour, site foreman and supervisor was set up, and the search for the right ustad (master craftsman) began. Omar S. Sharif from the Ministry of Information and Culture made regular visits and guided the team in their efforts. The team dove into work from day break to sun down, in their rush to finish the construction before the winters arrived | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
On September 25, 2010, the restoration work on Khisht-i-Kopruk began. A team of craftsmen, skilled and unskilled labour, site foreman and supervisor was set up, and the search for the right ustad (master craftsman) began. Omar S. Sharif from the Ministry of Information and Culture made regular visits and guided the team in their efforts. The team dove into work from day break to sun down, in their rush to finish the construction before the winters arrived Image: Anne Feenstra
The architecture of the building and the sequence of spaces in a hammam need to follow a rhythm that fulfils many requirements: the need for privacy and segregation, social interaction, control and movement. Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk is built up as a series of five rooms – square, oblong, hexagon, heptagons and octagon. Peculiarly, the hexagonal washing room hosts a mihrab, used for orientation during prayers | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
The architecture of the building and the sequence of spaces in a hammam need to follow a rhythm that fulfils many requirements: the need for privacy and segregation, social interaction, control and movement. Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk is built up as a series of five rooms – square, oblong, hexagon, heptagons and octagon. Peculiarly, the hexagonal washing room hosts a mihrab, used for orientation during prayers Image: Himanshu Lal
On October 11, 2011, the restored Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk opened its doors to bathers. Along with them came the children, who found a new playing field on the domes of the subterranean building | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
On October 11, 2011, the restored Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk opened its doors to bathers. Along with them came the children, who found a new playing field on the domes of the subterranean building Image: Anne Feenstra
The washing room is the heart of the hammam. As you open the heavy mulberry door, a wave of heat and steam hits you. The only light in the room come from the skylight in the centre of the dome above. Bather sit on the platform in the centre, soaping themselves or getting massaged. In Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk, this room is also equipped with a Mihrab, to indicate the direction for prayer | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
The washing room is the heart of the hammam. As you open the heavy mulberry door, a wave of heat and steam hits you. The only light in the room come from the skylight in the centre of the dome above. Bather sit on the platform in the centre, soaping themselves or getting massaged. In Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk, this room is also equipped with a Mihrab, to indicate the direction for prayer Image: Anne Feenstra
A second mihrab was discovered in the square barber room at the time of restoration. The barber room, or the salman-i-khana, is usually unheated, and is visited by patrons to get a shave or a haircut before a bath | Hammam Khisht-i-Kopruk of Kabul, Afghanistan | Life of An Afghan Hammam: Ignited, Extinguished, Rekindled by Tanvi Maheshwari | STIRworld
A second mihrab was discovered in the square barber room at the time of restoration. The barber room, or the salman-i-khana, is usually unheated, and is visited by patrons to get a shave or a haircut before a bath Image: Anne Feenstra

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