Spas in the Arab World - Miracle Waters at Work
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
We were standing with our friends in the Merinides Hotel overlooking the city of Fez – the historic jewel of the Moroccan urban centres. Below us the ancient city, dominated by the minarets of the Al-Karaouiyine Mosque, the home of the first true university in the world, spread out in all its glory. Amina who was talking to her husband Idriss, whose ancestors were the famous Idrissids, the dynasty that had established the city of Fez, was not, like us, thrilled with the scene. It was her town and she had lived with history all her life.
“I think I will be going tomorrow with my sister Fakhita to relax in the waters of Sidi Harazem. I feel like a young woman when I spend a day in its thermal waters.” Idriss, who was recounting to me the history of Fez, did not seem interested. “Fine! Fine! That’s tomorrow. Now, let’s take Habeeb and his family for a tour of our city.”
Amina’s infatuation with Sidi Harazem waters, rich in magnesium, is no idle fantasy. The waters of this ancient spa, located 15 km (9 mi) from Fez at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, have been known for their medical properties for over 2,000 years. The water, some 90 m (295 ft) below ground and shooting upward through layers of chalk and limestone, give them their healing powers.
In the 14th century the Sultan Abu Hassan constructed waterfalls and streams around a domed thermal bath. Today, besides Sidi Harazem’s bottled waters, sold throughout Morocco, the new Hotel Sidi Harazem with its thermal swimming pool, attractive gardens and fine restaurant await the visitor, seeking relaxation and relief from pains.
Twenty km (12.4 mi) from Fez, another spa, Moulay Yacoub Thermal Baths, is noted for its rich sulphur waters – surging up at 54°C from 1,500 meters depth and drawing those with more serious medical problems. Somewhat run-down, the baths are largely a medical centre – more local than tourist oriented.
These spas in Morocco are no different than the hundreds of natural hot water springs found throughout the Arab world. The vast majority, very popular with the local inhabitants, have not been developed into tourist-oriented resorts. A few like Sidi Harazem have attached luxury hotels, but most are still just mineral waters springs, only used by the local citizens.
A sample of the many hot springs and spas in the Arab countries will give one an idea of these health relaxing spots not much known in other parts of the world.
In Syria, there are dozens of mineral and sulphur springs spread throughout the country. One of the most important of these among these is a newly developed hotel-spa, Sheikh Issa, near Jisr Al-Shughour. The springs gushing out at a temperature of 39°C (102°F.) contain sodium, magnesium, sulphates, phosphates and potassium and they have been used since antiquity for the treatment of rheumatism and skin diseases.
However, the most well known of the Syrian hot springs for foreigners is Afqa in Palmyra. Edging the first-class Cham Palace Hotel, its sulphurous waters have been employed for medical purposes since Roman times. The hotel patrons, mostly Europeans, often go for a swim in its mineral waters, resting in-between the hectic tours.
More well known in the world of tourism are the hot springs in Jordan – some 63 thermal springs in the Zarqa – Ma’in area and 43 in the Zara area. Among these, the mineral waters at Hammamat Ma’in, are a series of hot springs emanating from Wadi Zarka, known in Byzantine times as the ‘Baths of Baaras’. Reached by driving through the most spectacular region around the Dead Sea, the springs have been made tourist-friendly by a luxury hotel complex. The whole area has been landscaped into the grounds of the hotel, making the spa inviting for those seeking relaxation and the healing qualities of Hammamat Ma’in waters.
Further on, are the springs at ‘Ain Zara, set in a gorge above the Dead Sea. They are believed to be the Callirhoe of the Classical period where King Herod used to come in order to treat his numerous illnesses. Its waters, cascading down the mountainside in a spectacular fashion can be enjoyed in a modern environment. A first-class expensive hotel and other reasonably priced abodes are to found in the vicinity.
Perhaps, the most up-to-date spa in the Arab world is Cleopatra’s Spa at the Pyramids in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. It introduces to the Arabian Gulf a fascinating fusion of the East and West in ancient and contemporary ‘holistic treatments’. A modern haven of relaxation, it is also the Middle East’s first centre for instruction in beauty therapy. The Cleopatra’s Spa is linked with the Steiner Group who have training centres in Europe and are renowned for their international standards of excellence in beauty, health and relaxation techniques.
For the affluent seeking therapy and relaxation, this spa, winner of ‘Best Spa’ Silver Mena Award for Middle East and North Africa, is much more popular than the hot springs near Al Ain with their strongly ferrous waters gushing out at a temperature of 45° C, then winding down a channel to a wide public bath.
Egypt, Yemen and other Arab countries have many hot springs and modern spas, but these are not as well known to the outside world as those in Tunisia. Of all the Arab countries, those in Tunisia have been renowned for thousands of years. There are over a hundred spas in the country – many famous since Carthaginian and Roman times. From among these are: Hammam Bourguiba, a thermal spa in the north-west of Tunisia, greatly prized by the Romans for its chlorinated-soda waters – now developed into a health farm; Hammam Lif, with waters which have been employed to cure the pains of tertiary syphilis since Carthaginian times; and Jebel Oust, near Tunis, noted for its chloro-sulphuric waters that once drew the Roman visitors.
However, overshadowing these hot springs are those at the little white town of Korbous on the Cape Bon Peninsula in Tunisia. Besides their aura of mystery, the virtues of their therapeutic qualities have for hundreds of years attracted an endless flow of people. To the Romans these hot springs, known as Aquae Caldae Carpitanae, were aqua miracula (miracle waters) that were heated by the gods who also gave them the properties of aqua fluventa (waters of youth).
Today, Korbous with its hot springs, set in an ochre coloured rugged landscape amid wild greenery and rock, has become a fashionable modern thermal resort. A tiny town, it has one main street lined with small shops and a number of lodging places – the most important being Hotel les Sources and Residence de Thermes.
The sulphurous waters from six of its seven springs in the area flow at a temperature as high as 60° C (140° F) and are noted for their radio active and curative properties. They are used in treating those affected with chronic rheumatism of all kinds, arthritis, neurological and digestive problems, gynaecological disorders, and skin diseases. Ain Atrous, 1 km (2/3 mi) east of town is the only one of the springs not utilized – its waters gushing at 72° C (160° F) are much too hot for bathers.
All the thermal establishments in Korbous are endowed with the most modern installations and medical staff who treat patients in clinics or, at times, in their hotel rooms. Depending on the type of affliction, a wide spectrum of treatments is employed, using the healing properties of the waters. Medicinal tub baths, tub balneal therapy, foot and arm baths, cloak douche, and underwater or jet showers are all utilised.
Of the Arab hot springs those in this small village have one of the longest histories. For some 2,500 years, people have come seeking their healing qualities – to the Romans, miracle attributes from the gods.