Exploring the process of cleansing – Bathing rituals in Berber tradition

When thinking about the process of cleansing, this links to the idea of letting go and ridding ourselves of things or habits that no longer serve us. Whether it is the physical act of taking a regular shower or bath, decluttering our living spaces or letting go of certain emotions that have been internalised from past experiences, all of these instances point to the importance of taking a moment to embrace the process of cleansing and rebirth. The act of ridding ourselves of dead skin, toxic mindsets, possessions that are collecting dust in our lives, makes us better equipped to create space for growth and for new opportunities to emerge. Looking to the history of the Berber people, one is able to gauge how water provided an opportunity to purify both physically and mentally at the individual and community level.

The Berber people (also referred to as Amazinh or Imazighen) have inhabited parts of present day Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso from around the sixth century. Crucial knowledge of irrigation systems among the Berber, strengthened under the Almoravid dynasty, aided the process of adapting to harsh landscapes where water was scarce. Their ability to cultivate dunes ensured that they were able to tap into the earth’s abundant water supply and funnel it across the landscape to reach hundreds of people. In light of this system, communities, were able to have better access to fresh water supplies to support households as well as each other. This example draws attention to a deep understanding of land and how communities worked with it to sustain themselves. Moreover, it helps, in part, to understand the appreciation of water and its symbolisms in Berber tradition. Evidence of this include:

Knowledge of water – The use of hammams (public baths) was a key feature of Berber Kingdom. In his book How Europe underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney noted the large presence of public baths in Berber Kingdom in the 12th century, which he argues was at the same time that scholars at Oxford university were still debating whether or not the act of washing the body was a dangerous act. To support the argument regarding the large presence of public baths during this period, archaeologists have unearthed what is said to be one of the oldest hammams in Morroco (over a thousand years old) and one of the biggest in the Western Muslim world, covering over 500 square metres, in the city of Aghmat. The size of such a hammam, particularly for that period, implies a good understanding of water as well as the ability to utilise such knowledge to bring people together through bathing rituals.

Bathing rituals – The hammam provides the opportunity to purify, both in the physical and mental sense. Its presence in a large part of the Muslim world still today draws attention to how history continues to be preserved through its use. In Ritual, Strategy, or Convention: Social Meanings in the Traditional Women’s Baths Valerie Staats offers the chance for the reader to gauge the spiritual aspect of bathing rituals in the hammam, arguing that it is a place where women can relax and completely reveal much about themselves as they come together to cleanse and share life experiences, “women scrub and rub each other, unselfconsciously…this intimate, uninhibited way of relating to each other is part of the satisfaction of the hammam”. One can gauge the presence of the hammam fulfilling the role as a safe space, in this case for women to bond and connect with each other as they cleanse. Staats also adds that “when someone leaves the hammam, she says b’sahahtik l’hammam, a traditional blessing that means “to health of you and your bath””. From this depiction one can grasp that the hammam offers more than just a chance to cleanse the body, it also offers a chance to come together and revitalise in a spiritual sense.

Water symbolisms – The deep understanding of water and how to use it in a sustainable way to benefit the community and landscape helps in part to explain why the water element carried important symbolisms in Berber tradition. “Traditionally, Berber women are the carriers of water. Water symbolizes life…coming as fountains from the inside of the earth, water is a very important element, as it is for our body”, this depiction given by Anthropologist Si Belkacem Taib sees the female essence aligned with the water element, which nourishes and aids the process of sustainability at an individual and community level.

The examples indicated above point towards a strong connection and understanding of surroundings among the Berber, they made use of this knowledge to promote the act of cleanse and rebirth with elements provided by nature. Water was not only used as a literal source to sustain communities, its use within the bathing rituals of the hammam also represented the importance of taking time to pay attention to self as well as coming together, all vital components for healing and growth. Looking at this aspect of Berber tradition, one can learn about the value of taking the time to scrub away and let go of things and thoughts that no longer serve us. May we each take the time to be fully present in the process of making space for a rebirth.

Sources

Decolonizing indigenous education: An Amazigh/Berber ethnographic journey – Si Belkacem Taib (2014)

Ritual, Strategy, or Convention: Social Meanings in the Traditional Women’s Baths in Morocco – Valerie Staats

Amazigh arts in Morocco: Women shaping Berber Identity – Cynthia J. Becker (2006)

How Europe underdeveloped Africa – Walter Rodney (1972)

Lost Kingdoms of Africa: The Berber Kingdom (BBC)

*Image taken from Pinterest

(I do not own the rights of the picture in this post)

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