"...look into all things with a searching eye” - Baha'u'llah (Prophet Founder of the Baha'i Faith)


Sep 20, 2016

Ancient bathing – up to about 10th Century

Archaeological evidence suggests 5,000-yearold bathing facilities in Gaza. Soaplike material found in clay jars of Babylonian origin has been dated to about 2800 B.C. From before the time of Abraham in Middle Eastern desert climes, custom dictated that hosts offer washing water to dusty-footed guests. But one of the first known and indisputable bathtubs comes from Minoan Crete. Supposedly built for the legendary King Minos around 1700 B.C. and found in the great palace at Knossos, it's of a shape similar to modern tubs. Even more impressive is the palace plumbing system that served the royal tub. Interlocking pieces of terra-cotta pipes-each tapered at one end to give water a shooting action to prevent the buildup of clogging sediment -- were jointed and cemented together. Their technology put Minoans in the hydrological vanguard.

Although the ancient Egyptians didn't develop such plumbing, they had a penchant for hygiene, evident in their use of fresh linens and body ointments, skin conditioners and deodorants of the day. As described in the 1500 B.C. Ebers Papyrus, these ancients washed, and treated skin diseases with a soapy material made of animal and vegetable oils and alkaline salts. From bas-reliefs and tomb excavations, there's evidence that Egyptians sat in a shallow kind of shower bath while attendants poured water over the bather.

Of course, Egyptians also cleansed themselves in the Nile. There, while bathing one day, a Pharaoh's daughter espied a small basket made of rushes, snagged in reeds along the water's edge. In it was a baby boy who grew up to be a rather notable leader and lawgiver. A savant of sanitation, Moses issued cleanliness criteria as well as moral precepts. As a sign of religious purification -- and to be ready to hear the word of Jehovah -- he ordered his Hebrew followers to wash their clothing. Before approaching a tabernacle, priests had to wash their hands and feet in a brass laver. But more than religion was involved here; Moses surely recognized the detrimental impact of filth upon the health of his wandering tribe. To him, a lack of cleanliness was “catching," in that it could pass on disease. Lepers were forced to announce their approach by shouting, "Unclean, unclean!"

The Greeks certainly were not unclean, and in fact prized cleanliness. Although they apparently did not use soap, Greeks anointed their bodies with oil and ashes, scrubbed with blocks of pumice or sand, and scraped themselves clean with a curved metal instrument called a strigil. Immersion in water and anointment with olive oil followed.

Homer makes frequent references to private Grecian baths: shallow vessels into which heated water was poured, often for the pleasure of guests. Public baths that offered a shower, a plunge, or a hot-air room known as a laconicum usually served as an adjunct to a gymnasium. But the Greeks rarely luxuriated in water: cleanliness was prized; indulgence wasn't. Demosthenes once complained about sailors who avoided work by "washing all the time."

At its peak of ablutionary excess, it may have seemed that all of Rome indulged in the baths. In the 4th century A.D., the city sported 11 large and magnificent public bathhouses, more than 1,350 public fountains and cisterns, and many hundreds of private baths. Served by 13 aqueducts, Rome's per-capita daily water consumption averaged about 300 gallons (1,130 liters), nearly the amount that an American family of four uses today.

As Lawrence Wright wrote in his 1960 book Clean and Decent, the Roman public bath "was the focus of communal life. Bathing was a basic social duty. The highest architectural and constructional skills were devoted to its setting. "Yet in the early days of the republic, noted Seneca, Romans purified themselves once a week at most. Citizens then began to frequent the balneum, a small bathhouse not unlike a local bar. In 25 B.C., Agrippa, chief deputy to Emperor Augustus, designed and built the first thermae, larger and more elaborate facilities. They triggered a golden age of bathing.

Subsequent emperors commissioned increasingly grand thermae, complexes that included restaurants and areas devoted to sports, theater, music, and even sleeping quarters. Either free or charging a nominal fee, the subsidized bath could boost a ruler's popularity. Emperor Caracalla's bath, notes Wright, covered an area six times larger than St. Paul's Cathedral in London and could accommodate 1,600 bathers at a time. Finished in A.D. 305, the baths of Emperor Diocletian entertained crowds of more than 3,000 in marble splendor, beneath high vaulted ceilings. Thanks to Michelangelo's restoration, part of the structure is still being used as a church.

Baths usually opened at midday, just as sportsmen finished games or exercise. A bather first entered the tepidarium, a moderately warm room for sweating and lingering. The wealthy man brought slaves to anoint his body with fine oils, some of which included sand to help remove dirt. Poor folk scrubbed themselves with inexpensive lentil flour.

Next came the calidarium, a hotter room for greater sweating, or perhaps the ultra-hot laconicum. In these the bather doused himself with copious quantities of warm, tepid, or cold water. Scraped off with a strigil, sponged, and re-anointed , the Roman concluded the process by plunging into the cool and refreshing pool of the frigidarium.

In the early years of thermae, the sexes didn't mix. Notes Wright: "No respectable matron would go to the baths at all." In Pompeii, men and women had separate facilities. But in Rome, baths eventually became seminaria venenata, or hotbeds of promiscuity and vice; some were adjuncts to brothels. Rome's obsession with bathing is said to be a factor that helped send the empire down the drain.

So, too, went hygiene. "The fathers of the early church equated bodily cleanliness with the luxuries, paganism, and what's been called 'the monstrous sensualities' of Rome," explains Professor Greene. Within a few centuries, the public and private sanitation practices of Greece and Rome were forgotten. Or, as Greene adds, were "deliberately repressed." Europe during the Middle Ages, it's often been said, went 1,000 years without a bath.

However, Gregory the Great, the first monk to become pope, allowed Sunday baths and even commended them, so long as they didn't become a "time-wasting luxury." Given his background, it's natural that Gregory wouldn't oppose hygiene. Guardians of culture and knowledge during the Dark Ages, Europe's monasteries also preserved some of Rome's hydrological technology and cleanliness habits. 
(Funk & Wagnalls new Encyclopedia of Science Year Book)