Born and raised in a small country town in the conservative Midwest of the U.S., the idea of a particular kind of building dedicated to public bathing is a concept pretty far outside of my comfort zone. Certainly it is light years away from my personal experience. However, exploring and researching the culture, traditions, and cuisine of Turkey over the past ten months has heightened my awareness of both the differences and the similarities in people and how they live. Learning about another country like Turkey has been an exciting and educational experience. The more I have learned, the more I want to know. In this article, we are going to explore the history and culture of the “hammam”, the Turkish Bath. This centuries-old cultural tradition is still part of everyday life for hundreds of people in modern-day Turkey. In fact, the concept of the Turkish Bath has been translated to many other countries around the world where it is enjoyed by hundreds more.
What is the traditional “hammam”? Since the founding of the Ottoman Empire in 1299, the hammam has been associated with its culture, and more widely that of the Islamic world. During England’s Victorian Age, a variation on the traditional Turkish Bath for cleansing and relaxation became popular. The custom then spread throughout the British Empire and Western Europe. The type of buildings which house Turkish baths are very similar to the Roman “thermae”. And although similar to a Russian sauna (called “banya”) which uses steam, the main focus of the Turkish Bath is water.
The rituals of the Turkish Bath roughly follow the bathing practices of the ancient Romans. The bather begins the ritual by relaxing in a room heated by a continuous flow of hot, dry air. This allows the bather to begin to freely perspire, releasing the toxins that have built-up in the body. The next step is to move into an even hotter room before washing in cold water. After a full-body wash and a Turkish massage, bathers retire again, this time to a cooling room to relax for another period of time.
When the concept of the Turkish Bath became a popular idea in the Victorian era, hot, dry air was used in their baths. In the Islamic hammam, the air is often steamy. The bather in a Victorian Turkish Bath often took a plunge in a cold pool after the hot rooms. In Roman-style hammams, you will find a cold pool for full submersion of the body. In some locations where Islamic populations were predominant, the hammam evolved from its Roman roots and adapted to the needs of ritual purification according to Islam. An Islamic hammam does not traditionally have a cold pool because this style of bathing is not preferred in the Islamic faith. Bathing under running water without being submerged is considered more appropriate.
One of the Five Pillars of Islam is prayer, and it is customary to perform an ablution before prayer. The two forms of ablution in Islam are ghusl, a full-body cleansing, and wudu, a cleansing of the face, hands, and feet. It is interesting to note that in the absence of water, cleansing with pure soil or sand is permissible. Mosques also provide a place to wash, and hammams are often located near mosques for those who wish to perform a deeper cleansing before prayer.
Of necessity, the traditional hammam is segregated between men and women, but the bathing rituals are the same. The one exception to this segregation involves boys who are still young. They will continue to accompany their mothers into the female hammam until they are old enough to go into the male hammam with their fathers. This final separation from the women’s hammam usually occurs when a boy reaches the age of 5 or 6.
The Female Hammam: As a primarily female space, hammams have played a special role in society for women, serving as a space for both bathing and socializing. Traditional and modern women could come together, from both urban and rural areas of the country, regardless of their religiosity. The hammam has traditionally been a place where women can feel more at ease than they would feel in many other public interactions and public spaces. During the Ottoman period, a woman’s life consisted of being at home or in the seraglio, the designated women’s quarters in the home or in the sultan’s palace. Going out alone was strictly forbidden for women on religious grounds. The only place women could go without their fathers or husbands was the hammam, so women’s visits were more numerous than that of men.
When they could be at the hamman. women took their own pestemal, silver bath bowl, kohl, mirror, and make-up items. Sometimes women would also bring homemade meals with them. Or they could partake of the special drinks and meals offered to customers at the hammam — such as Turkish Coffee, Turkish Delight, boza and pickles. Turkish Boza is a smoothie-like, fermented drink and has a sweet and tangy flavor that some find addictive. It is made from bulgur, rice, sugar, yeast and water.
I must make this comment. The combination of the Turkish Delight and Turkish Boza sounds like it would be delightful and palatable. But in my research, when pickles were mentioned as part of this mix of foods, my brain screamed “indigestion”. Don’t misunderstand me; I am a great lover of the pickle! Put some cheese, pide, or a square of savory borek beside that pickle, and that would really work for me. The coffee and Turkish Delight could come after that.
In a work titled “Sexuality in Islam,” author Abdelwahab Bouhiba notes that some historians found evidence that hammams also became spaces for sexual expression among women. This was believed to occur due to the nudity that was common and almost universal within the privacy of the spaces in the female hmmam. This footnote might be embarrassing to some who read this article, but nevertheless it is part of the history of the Turkish Bath and history cannot be changed. If certain material is considered relevant to the authenticity of an article, it will be included for that purpose and not for sensationalism.
Parties held at the baths were important social events for women. Here are some interesting examples of the kinds of events held at the hammam:
- The Bridal Bath: held one day before the start of wedding festivities.
- The Forty-Day Bath: to mark the fortieth day after the birth of a child.
- The Tear-Drying Bath: attended by relatives and friends of the deceased twenty days after her death.
- The Votary Bath: held when a person’s wish was fulfilled.
- The Guest Bath: the hostess would invite friends and relatives to meet a special visitor.
- The Holiday Bath: taken on the eve of religious holidays.
The hammam combines the functionality and the structural elements of its predecessor in Anatolia, the Roman “thermae” bath. This form of the bath was then joined with the Islamic and Central Asian Turkic traditions of steam bathing, ritual cleansing, and respect for water. From the 11th Century, the Seljuk Empire began to proliferate in the lands of Anatolia conquered from the Eastern Romans. This led the way for complete conquest of the remnants of the old empire in the 15th Century. During these centuries of war, peace, alliance, trade and competition, several cultures — Eastern Roman, Islamic Persian, and Turkic — exerted tremendous influence on each other. Moving beyond the simple reuse of Greek and Roman baths, new baths were constructed as annex buildings to mosques. These building complexes would hold both community centers and houses of worship.
The Ottomans became prolific patrons of baths and built a number of ambitious structures, particularly in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. The Greek inhabitants living there had retained a strong Eastern Roman bath culture. Several monumental baths were designed by Renaissance Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan (1489–1588), such as the Cemberlitas Hammami (in the picture above), the bath in the complex of the Suleymaniye Mosque, and the bath of the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne. These were particularly influential in establishing and sustaining a stronger Turkish Bath culture.
The Typical Hammam: Like its Roman predecessor, a typical hammam consists of three basic and interconnected rooms. The first is the hot room (sıcaklık or hararet — in Latin, “caldarium“). The second is the warm room (sicak oda — in Latin, “tepidarium“), the intermediate room. The third is the cool room (sogukluk — in Latin, “frigidarium“). The main evolutionary change between Roman baths and Turkish baths concerned the cool room. The Roman “frigidarium” included a cold water pool in which patrons immersed themselves before moving on to the warmer rooms. Medieval Muslim customs placed a high priority on cleanliness but preferred running water to immersion baths, so the cold water pool was dispensed with. The sequence of rooms was further revised so bathers generally used the cool room after the warmer rooms and massages, rather than before. Whereas the Roman style used it for preparation, the Ottomans used it for recovery and refreshment, serving drinks and snacks to the bathers.
The sıcaklık, the hot room, usually has a large dome decorated with small glass clerestory windows that create a half-light. In the center of the room is a large heated marble table (göbek tası or navel stone) that customers lie on, and niches with fountains in the corners. This room is for soaking up steam and getting a scrub and a massage. The warm room is for washing with soap and water. The sogukluk, the cool room, is to relax, get dressed, have a refreshing drink and and snack. And where available, take a nap in a private cubicle after a massage.
Hammam complexes usually contain separate quarters for men and women. If there are no separate quarters set aside, men and women are admitted at separate times. Because they were social centers as well as baths, hammams became numerous during the time of the Ottoman Empire and were built in almost every Ottoman city.
Hammam Accessories: Several accessories from Roman times are still used in modern-day hammams. Two of the most common are:
The Pestemal: The pestemal is a special woven cloth of silk and/or cotton used to cover the body in the bath. Men wrap the pestemal from the waist, and women wrap it from the armpit. It is a handicraft produced by weaving on hand looms by women in Turkey’s eastern Black Sea and Aegean regions for nearly 600 years. Today, pestemals are woven on advanced looms using electricity, and are generally woven using linen or cotton yarn. The silk pestemal is called Fota.
The pestemal is also used in traditional clothes, especially by people in the Black Sea Region of Turkey. It is wrapped from the waist to prevent contamination of their clothes while a person is working. There are distinctive patterns on this cloth, each one having a rich color harmony which represents the region the person comes from who is wearing it. According to ancient Turkish traditions, when a couple decided to marry, they gave each other a bath set as a gift. A pestemal was the most indispensable piece of this set.
This is an “old wives’ tale” within the culture. If a young, unmarried girl dreamed of being wrapped in a pestemal, it meant she would soon marry. If the peshtemal is clean, she will have happiness in the marriage. If a married person dreams about peshtemal, it is a sign that his or her prestige in society will increase.
Special Soap: The most preferred and the most beneficial to the skin are the organic olive oil soaps produced in Turkey’s Aegean Region, particularly around Edremit. The history of soap is as old as humanity. Until the ancient Phoenicians discovered how to make soap, ash and clay were the traditional tools used for cleaning. In 600 B.C., soap was sometimes used as a bartering tool and at times as a medicine. As the demand for soap increased, its production increased and soap manufacturers created their own trade group.
In the 10th Century, there was a group of soap artisans in the artisan guilds of Byzantium. Archival documents state that the production and consumption of soap was quite common in the Ottoman period. It was produced by traditional methods using the raw materials of olive oil and tallow. Still today, soaps made with olive oil are the most preferred and carry the highest economic value.
Along with her own peshtemal and soap case, several other accessories were included in the “”bundle” a woman would traditionally take with her to the hammam:
- Pair of Wooden Clogs: In Turkish “nalin”, they kept the feet clear of the wet floor. They were often embellished, most often with mother-of-pearl or wrapped in tooled silver.
- Tas or Bowl: Used for pouring water over the body. It was always of metal — silver, gilt or tinned copper, or brass — with some grooved or inlaid ornamentation.
- Soap Case: Along with soap, it contained a coarse mitt (the kese) for scouring down the skin, and both a fine and broadtooth comb made of horn or ivory.
- Small Jewelry Box: Made of silver, copper or wood, it was for storing the woman’s jewelry when it was removed at the hammam as she undressed.
- Mirror: An indispensable item, its frame and handle were most often of wood but sometimes silver or brass.
- Bowl for Henna: To be filled upon arrival at the hammam. Aside from the color it would lend to the hair, it was also considered to strengthen it.
- Rastik (or Kohl): In a small container of tinned copper, it is an organic dye used by women for their hair and eyebrows. It was especially popular with those of fair and auburn hair.
- Bottle of Attar of Rose: Kept in a wooden case and inevitably found in the hammam “bundle”. It was the only perfume considered proper for the newly washed body.
Two Characters of Hamman Culture: The tellak (the rubber) and the kulhanbeyi (the rowdy) are two important characters of the Turkish hammam. Traditionally, the tellak were young men who helped wash clients by soaping and scrubbing their bodies. Bath gloves and pestemals (special cloths) were used by the rubbers. In the old days, rubbers did not use the same type and color of pestemal, but one of black silk called a futa. In modern-day hammams, both rubbers and customers use a red-striped pestemal with a cream-colored or yellow background. After the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman army in the early 20th century, the role of tellak boys was filled by adult attendants.
The kulhanbeyi (the rowdy) is the star of Turkish hammam culture. The classic dress style of the rowdy was a narrowly-molded, maroon-colored fez, dark pants, light-colored shirt, a vest, and a jacket around the shoulders. The character of the kulhanbeyi was very popular and depicted in many works of Turkish literature.I
Because of the cartoon-type illustations of the kulhanbeyi used in Turkish literature, I thought it would be fun to insert one here to see this well-loved character of Turkish hammam culture.
At one time, the assistant of the stoker who worked in the boiler room of the Turkish Bath was called a kulhanbeyi, a rowdy. Their job was to make the fire to warm-up the bath and to supply any equipment that was needed.
Hammam Services: A number of different services are offered in most hammans. A traditional Turkish bath package includes 45 minutes of washing, the traditional body scrubbing with handwoven wash cloth known as a kese, a foam wash, and a massage. Visitors are provided with a peshtemal, a thin cotton towel to wrap yourself in, and a regular towel to use after bathing. Almost all historic baths in Istanbul will have a dressing section where you can securely store your belongings.
Once the customer is ready, they are taken by the bath attendant into the warm room. This is the place to relax and sweat next to a kurna, the small marble basin. The scrubbing comes next, done by an attendant who scrubs every inch of the body with the kese. In a traditional hammam, washing spaces are separated by marble panels to create a sense of privacy. Once scrubbed, the bather is taken into the hot section to the warm marble slab called the gobektasi. The attendant then gives a sudsy massage with a lacy, foam-filled cloth. After experiencing this rejuvenating experience, most customers want to linger in the bath area and relax.
Health Benefits: Hammams have long been considered beneficial to health. The use of continuous hot water and ambient temperatures of 35-45 degrees centigrade creates an environment of high humidity. This raises the body’s temperature and activates the organs within the body, which is considered beneficial. After a period of time spent in this high humidity environment, when the body is rubbed with the bath glove, renewal and refreshing of the skin takes place as dead skin cells are removed.
The medical profession has supported the positive effects of sweating on human health for centuries. It is considered as important for the body as breathing. In the historical Turkish Bath, a person will sweat out approximately 1.5 liters of moisture within 15 minutes. Sweating to this extent helps the kidneys, and the toxins which makeup 10% of sweat are thrown off the body. It opens the pores of the skin, speeds up the heartbeat, increases blood circulation, and is often used in the treatment of cellulite, arthritis, and many other diseases. However, this can be risky for cardiac patients and those with high blood pressure. People with these issues are advised to consult a doctor before going to the hammam.
Architectural Characteristics: Turkish hammams have existed for centuries as one of the major components of Ottoman and Turkish culture. They are architectural wonders with great importance in terms of art, and many contain the same architectural features of the mosque, and this has not changed for thousands of years. However, some features of Roman baths continued during the Ottoman period. The following are examples of this. In both periods, the hot room (sicaklik) was built on bricks. The burning fire in the boiler room (the kulhan), right next to the hot room, heats the hammam by passing through channels called the stokehole (cehennemlik). The smoke is then thrown out of smokestacks placed into the walls and made of baked earthenware.
There are inscriptions in hammams containing information about the date of its construction and the name of the builder. Ottoman baths have a portico at the front side, inspired by Seljuk Baths. There are beautiful examples of decorative stone masonry on the doors of some hammams. The most beautiful examples of the construction of the large-domed hammam are the Cemberlitas Hammam, the Ortakoy Hammam, the Kilic Ali Pasha Hammam, the Beyazit Hammam, and the Suleymaniye Hammam.
Like any traveler with Turkey on their “bucket list” to visit, the idea of experiencing a traditional Turkish Bath seems like something I could, may possibly, maybe might be interested in doing. Having used the word “hammam” so much in writing this article, and learned so much more about it, who knows? That intrepid traveler, ready for that next adventure into the wonderful culture of Turkey, might just be me!
Mary Bloyd is a retired corporate manager living in Ohio, USA with her family. Mary loves cooking for family and friends. Taught by a professional chef, she developed a curiosity about all manner of foods and cuisine. After discovering the wonderful storytelling of Turkish dizis and films, Mary became interested in and has written many articles about Turkish cuisine, traditions, and culture. Mary loves to travel, is a journal-keeper, writer of short stories and poetry, and is currently working on her first book, a personal memoir.
@Copyright by North America TEN and Mary Bloyd