Thanks to the ancient Romans and Greeks, we don’t shower or bathe in the cold. The Roman Thermae– or hot baths—are the inspiration for many of our modern bathing traditions. Similarly, the Hammam, otherwise known as a Turkish steam bath, is where many modern bathing rituals originated. The Hammam is probably the oldest surviving bath tradition in the world. Its popularity has not faded over time—in fact, this ancient steam bath ritual has gained enthusiastic fans in every corner of the world.
Romans + Turks = Hammam
When the Ottomans took Constantinople (now Istanbul) from the Romans in 1450, they brought with them their own bathing traditions. The Turk Ottomans soon encountered the Roman bath habits and merged these with their own. Thus a whole new cleansing ritual was born, conforming to the requirements and rules of Islam. The Turks called it Hammam, meaning “the spreader of warmth.”
Roman vs. Turkish Baths
The Romans believed in centralisation, building one massive bath complex where thousands of people could visit for their daily bathing routines and to catch up on the latest news. The Ottomans, however, were inspired by their religion and followed their own cleanliness rules. They considered bathing to be a purification ritual completed before prayer. Instead of one big Roman bath, they preferred smaller bath houses scattered around the city. For this reason, many modern day Hammams can be found next to a mosque. While Roman bath houses contained a cold water pool where people could fully submerge themselves, the Turks perceived this tradition as bathing in filth, and therefore preferred to clean themselves with bowls of running water. Another significant difference between the Roman and Turkish baths concerned the cold room: the Turkish tradition required that the cleansing ritual finished there as a means of recovery, whereas the Romans used it before bathing as a means of preparation.
A woman’s escape
In the beginning, the Hammam was a place that only welcomed men. Steadily, the rules changed to allow ill women or those who had given birth to visit, as long as there were no men present. Eventually, all women could bathe there, most likely due to the influence of Mohammed, who claimed that the warmth of the baths enhanced fertility. On a social level, many women considered it their daily escape from isolation in the home. In fact, at one point, a husband prohibiting his wife from visiting the Hamman was considered to be a legitimate reason for her to file for divorce. It later became accessible for all and thus became an important social centre for people of all classes. It evolved into much more than a place where you could cleanse your body—it was and still is a retreat for bodily and spiritual cleansing, but also a place where important moments in life are celebrated, complete with bath, food and music.
The authentic ritual
Like its Roman predecessor, a typical Hammam has three interconnecting rooms: a camekan, a hararet and a soğukluk. The camekan serves as an impressive entrance hall, and can best be compared to a warm locker room. Here is where you undress and receive a peştemal—a special, thin cloth to cover your body—and nalin, a pair or wooden slippers. Then you are escorted by the tellak (masseur) to the hararet, a hot room with a dome and windows to create low light. The tellak instructs you to lay down on the göbek taşı, or belly stone, which is a raised, marble platform. This makes you sweat, opening up your pores in anticipation of a great cleanse. After a few minutes, the tellak comes back in to wash and vigorously scrub you with a traditional soap made from olive paste. When this is done, the suds and dead skin cells are washed away using bowls filled with clean water. Once near the water basins, you receive a second intensive scrub with a rough mitten called a kese, followed by another rinse. Finally, you towel off and enter the soğukluk, or cool room, where you can lay down in bed, drink something to rehydrate and generally relax.
The Hammam and you
If you ever travel to the East and find yourself in the vicinity of a Hammam, do your body and your soul a favour and give it a try. It is uniquely relaxing and invigorating, and your skin will never feel softer. Are you planning a holiday to Morocco or Turkey? We’d love to hear about your experience visiting one of the steam baths, so please drop us a line! In the meantime, create your own personal steam bath at home with our The Ritual of Hammam collection.