The Arts and Crafts, Turkish Bath and Spa Tour

Some Fascinating Historical Facts About Turkish Baths

The Ottoman Empire, which maintained its sovereignty for over five centuries, eventually took its place alongside other fallen empires with the founding of the Republic of Turkey at the beginning of this century, leaving behind it buildings, works of art and the like to this day. Still today, as in its days of glory, the Ottoman Empire continues to fascinate us, from its political system to its social life.

If you ask a foreigner in Turkey what the words Ottoman, and Turkey, call to mind, many will say, "Turkish baths," better known in Turkey as a "hamam." Although nowadays only a handful of hamams remain, and even those serve to entertain tourists as another spot in their daily tours, hamams were an integral part of Ottoman, and therefore Turkish, culture for centuries.

From Byzantium to the Ottomans

A careful look at the history of hamams will reveal that like many other things in Turkey, there are no purely "Turkish" hamams. Either they are copied from early Greek and Roman examples, or else they are renovated Byzantium hamams. But we should give the Ottomans credit for transforming them from places simply for washing to an indispensable part of daily social life. Hamams functioned as places of entertainment in a closed society where Islamic rules governed social life. We could even say that they eventually evolved into the equivalent of the bars and cafes of modern times.

"Hamams" are an intriguing subject, as the history of hamams reflects the history of the synthesis between the East and West. Through the history of the hamam, an institution which formed an important part of the daily lives of millions, not only can the developments and changes in the arts, architecture, traditions and inclinations be traced, but through them it is possible to observe the rise and fall of nations and empires.

The Ottomans may have physically captured Istanbul, but Byzantium, with its rich Roman heritage, conquered the Ottomans with its hamams. On entering Istanbul, Mehmed II was awestruck by this beautiful city, and was more than reluctant to sack it, although under Islamic law a city which refused to surrender and was later captured had to be sacked. However, he reserved part of the city for himself, thus saving a certain part of Istanbul from being sacked. Later, old foundations and materials left over from the Byzantium reign were used to construct new buildings. However it was hamams that attracted the Ottomans' interest the most.

In the most splendid periods of the Empire, every district of the city was endowed with a hamam, with its hot and cold baths, fountains, domed marble rooms and which was open exclusively for women on certain days of the week. According to the renowned traveller Evliya Celebi, there were 4,536 private hamams and 300 public ones in 17th century Istanbul. We should bear in mind here that Evliya Celebi liked to exaggerate, but it still gives a general idea of the popularity of hamams in the Ottoman period. However, as private bathing became more popular in Ottoman culture, the number of public hamams began to decline, with only some 130 remaining by the 19th century.

Washing and socializing in hamams

The main reason why hamams became an integral part of Ottoman culture was religion. According to the Koran, washing is not only an important, but an essential part of Islam. However, these marble temples helped create a social atmosphere, consisting of bathing, massage and chatting. Enjoying the company of friends and making business contacts were as important reasons for hamams' popularity as the religious and hygienic aspects. They were the only places where Ottoman women could socialize in their restricted lives outside the closed doors of their houses. Even the most wealthy women, who had their own private hamams in their houses, dropped by the hamam in their district once a month.

The routine ritual of going to the hamam meant arriving with towel, brush, henna, kohl, Cretan soap, pearl-engraved pattens and if possible servants. This ritualistic preparation was necessary as not just a couple of hours, but almost a whole day would be spent in the hamam.

Over time, the washing aspect of going to hamams became secondary. People came to bring food, their pets, and invite friends, musicians and belly dancers to hamams. Following a bath and a massage, women, with only a linen cloth around them, fixed their eyebrows, dyed their hair, and sometimes hands and feet as well, with henna and waxed themselves.

Sources reveal that what fascinated the Europeans the most about the hamams in the Ottoman period was the "removal of body hair." Much fiction and research penned by Europeans give detailed accounts of this.

Happy, glowing people in hamams

The Hanafi branch of Islam, which includes the Sunni Turks, demands that every part of the body - every part! - be free from hair. Therefore, at each hamam visit, women waxed their body with waxes made of sugar and various herbs. Men preferred razor blades and hair-removing ointments (the most popular ointment is called "rusma" in books. The instructions carried special warnings as it included arsenic). During the Ottoman period, removing body hair was more important to Moslem men and women than it is in the modern world. Hair-removal and massage for women was done by a female concubine. This homosociality, led, at times, to homosexuality as well. Therefore, men did not want their wives to go to the "scandalous" public hamams if they wanted them to stay "virtuous." However, they could not prevent it if there was no private hamam in their houses, for religious reasons.

Therefore, there were two basic functions of going to hamams. The first, to wash so that one could pray or go to the mosque. The second, to make women's lives less boring. Hamam visits were a good excuse for women to leave their houses. There were, of course, imbroglios arising from women's leaving their houses to go to hamams, but ending up somewhere else.

As mentioned previously hamams were also a means of finding a partner. Mothers asked friends if they knew any suitable girls for their sons, or even checked the girls out while they were bathing. Young girls sometimes deliberately showed themselves off in hamams for this very reason. Then there were "wedding hamams," just before the wedding, which resembled modern wild bachelor parties.

Here is a quotation from N.M. Penzer's "Harem": "Now it is time for the most rewarding part of the hamam ritual. I am taken to heaven with this feeling of bodily satisfaction and cleanliness. As I lie on my couch like a king, in true Orientalist fashion, I clap my hands and ask for coffee and cigarettes. Pain and worries are all forgotten, as the smoke from my cigarette coils upwards. I get the feeling that the smoke from this modern mortal will reach Zeus at Olympus, where I lie down beneath his house."