A hammam—also referred to as a Turkish hamam or Turkish bath—is a Middle Eastern variant of a steam bath, similar to that of a sauna. Though it originated in Arabia, it was popularized in Turkey during the Ottoman Empire, where it was made available to people of all social classes and laid the foundation for many modern bathing traditions that endure today. Though the baths were mainly used for cleansing and hygienic purposes, they also served as meeting grounds for bathers to relax and socialize.
Hammam traditions were introduced to the West in the nineteenth century, when artists who traveled to the Middle East depicted scenes of bathhouses in their works. Though advances in modern day plumbing have since rendered most hammams obsolete, their cleansing and ritual practices gained enthusiastic fans worldwide—and many continue the centuries-old ritual.
The Origin of the Hammam
The practice of using heat to release toxins within the body dates back tens of thousands of years to the Neolithic Age, when nomadic tribes sought relief from brutally cold climates by soaking in natural hot springs. Eventually, bathing moved indoors, and public baths were constructed. One of the earliest known examples is known as the “Great Bath,” built around 2500 B.C. Archaeologists excavated the large pool in the early 1900s in Pakistan, and believed it was used as a bathing ritual site and temple.
By 300 B.C., the practice of public bathing was adopted by the Romans and became a vital part of Roman culture. The hammam derived from Roman and Byzantine baths as Turkish Ottomans merged previous practices with that of their own. Inspired by religious beliefs, Turkish patrons looked to bathing as a purification ritual before prayer, where the concept of purifying the body went hand-in-hand with purifying the soul. Though the Romans preferred one large bath, in Turkey, smaller bath houses could be found across a city.
Initially, hammams were only accessible to men, but rules gradually softened to allow ailing women to visit. Eventually, all women were granted access to the public baths, due in large part to the influence of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, who believed that warm baths enhanced fertility. As hammams became a widespread cultural practice, they were soon used to celebrate major life events such as weddings and births. Though they no longer serve as the main source of bathing and hygiene in Turkey, the practice has spread across the globe as many attempt to channel their therapeutic benefits in spas and homes.
Process, Tools and Health Benefits
Hammams have become popular tourist destinations in areas like Turkey and Morocco for those who want to clean off, detox, and immerse themselves in a culturally significant, ancient practice. Though rituals, amenities and processes can vary by region, the general experience is about the same.
Though most studies focus on the architectural elements and decorative motifs involved in the hammam ritual, objects used were equally as important. Below are staple elements that are often included in the bathing process:
- Scraper: used to scrape away dead skin loosened by ambient humidity and sweat
- Havli: towel used to dry the body
- Peştemal: special thin cloth to cover the body
- Nalin: pair of wooden slippers; during Ottoman times, nalins were elaborate and featured an intricate pattern of inlaid mother-of-pearl.
Experience and Etiquette
Typically, a hammam has three connecting rooms: a camekan, hararet, and soğukluk. The camekan acts as the entrance hall, similar to that of a locker room. This is the area in which you undress and receive a peştemal to cover your body. Next, you are escorted to the hararet, a hot room with a dome and windows intended to create low light. You are instructed to lay down on a göbek taşı, or belly stone, which is a raised, marble platform. This is where the washing occurs.
Typically, a hammam attendant will vigorously wash and scrub you with traditional soap made of olive paste. Excess dead skin is then washed away using clean water. After, a second, equally intensive scrub takes place using a rough mitten called a kese. Once the scrubbing is complete, you are led to the soğukluk, a cool room where you towel off, hydrate, and lie down to relax.
Though hammams were originally used for hygiene and religious purposes, they have since been used for a variety of therapeutic benefits, both mentally, spiritually, and physically. Below are some of their many benefits:
- Detoxifying: Hammams are believed to reduce stress, anxiety, and allow deep for relaxation
- Cleansing: The heat used within the practice is intended to induce sweat and to open pores in anticipation of a deep cleanse
- Hydrating: The process allows essential vitamins and minerals to nourish and hydrate the skin
- Decreasing muscle tension: Hammams have been used to soothe muscle pain and rheumatism
- Boosting immune system: By activating blood circulation, hammams can have a positive impact on the immune system
- Fostering a mind and body connection: Creating this mental balance allows for more energy and understanding
How to Recreate the Hammam Experience at Home
For those who don’t have the luxury of visiting Morocco or Istanbul, there are many ways in which you can create the experience of a Turkish hammam from the comfort of your own home. Using easily accessible products, here’s how to reap the relaxing and cleansing benefits on your own.
Turkey is a country rich with history and time-honored traditions, from Turkish rug-making to unique works of decorative art that are cherished around the world. The significance of the hammam is a look at the country’s vibrant cultural heritage, and how these influences have been passed around the globe. If you’re unable to visit historic hammams in person—like that of Istablu’s Cağaloğlu Hamam, the last to be built during the Ottoman Empire—recreate your own relaxing oasis at home.