Iran’s historic bathhouses, where patrons are rinsed and massaged beneath graceful archways and tiled walls, may soon disappear as interest in them wanes.

Some of the bathhouses, known as “hammams” in Persian, are centuries old. But business has declined as modern conveniences now allow showers and baths in most homes across the Islamic Republic. The few that remain, mostly in old neighborhoods, largely draw day laborers and travelers.

“Nowadays, there are only three or four public bathhouses in Tehran,” says Mahdi Sajjadi, head of the Tehran bathhouse owners’ association.

In the old days, the bathhouses were more than just a place to clean up, shave or get a massage from a “dallak,” who uses a mitt to scrub and exfoliate a client’s back. Then, people gathered in the humid air to discuss current events and debate ideas.

Now, bathhouse owners like Gholam Ali Amirian, 70, who has spent four decades working in a hammam that is some 850 years old, fear the institution will dissipate like the steam from its heated pool.

“Some 35 years ago, before the revolution, we had lots of customers,” Amirian says. “At 4 a.m., when I wanted to open the hammam, there were people already in a queue. Five people worked here and we had over 50 customers a day. But now we have three customers a day on average.”

Sajjadi suggests the government could turn the bathhouses into tourist attractions by offering low-interest loans to owners to renovate their aging interiors. But so far, there’s been no move to do that as the economic pressure grows.

Photo Credit: A group of men bathe at the Nezafat public bathhouse, in Tabriz, Iran. The steamy air and curved tiled walls of Iran’s famed public bathhouses, some rinsing and massaging patrons for hundreds of years, slowly may wash away as interest in them wanes. Ebrahim Noroozi / Associated Press