25 May HAMMAM TRADITION: EXPLORING THE RICHNESS
Hammam tradition has been significant in Turkish culture for centuries. The reasons for it are both religious and hygienic, meaning a ritual ablution, and general bathing treatment. What you may not know is that these public baths also served critical social functions. They were a meeting point for both men and women of every socioeconomic status and of all ages. This cultural heritage of the Ottoman era is crucial in the context of transferring knowledge to future generations.
HAMMAM'S TRADITIONAL PLACE THROUGHOUT HISTORY
Hammam traditions have their own social norms and etiquette. They were an important part of the Ottoman Empire in terms of both faith and social life. Among them, they were marriage traditions and several different kinds of entertainment events. They also included religious holidays, relaxing health treatments, and even some art activities.
It’s impossible to protect and understand cultural heritage by separating it from the rituals and practices of a society. What’s more, the rituals and ceremonies developed over the centuries even shaped the form of the public hammams. According to UNESCO, Turkish bath traditions are a part of intangible cultural heritage. It “includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants”.
The cultural heritage of Turkish bathing traditions includes:
- Rituals and practices
- Cultural activities and performances
- Traditional food and refreshments
In modern times, Turkish baths are not as popular due to the loss of most of their original functions. Historically, hammams were used by almost every segment of society. Nowadays they are often used for tourist purposes due to their increasing popularity. They have become more and more popular among visitors coming to Turkey from different countries. Many foreigners wish to experience authentic Turkish traditions and culture.
RITUALS AND PRACTICES DURING THE HAMMAM GATHERING
Hammam experience is an institution with its system of ineradicable customs. These social gatherings became a folklore tradition after some time. They even turned into special ceremonies with their own rituals. Most of these social rituals focused on helping people with stress by having a warm water bath in a relaxing atmosphere. Traditional purification hammam rituals are crucial for the Turkish bath experience.
Some of the traditional rituals and practices that took place during these social gatherings were:
- Groom and bride rituals
- Ceremony of mourning
- Circumcision celebration
- Off-to-the-army bathing
In traditional Ottoman medicine, some of the Turkish baths were considered healing centers. They were filled with therapeutic waters to drink and bathe in. Hammams were also perfect places for mothers to choose girls as brides for their sons. Children bathing on their forty-first day after birth was another special practice. There was also a custom of making a promise and celebrating it by paying for a ceremonial bath in a hammam. And a fun fact: according to tradition, when a man wanted to divorce his wife, he would show this intention by refusing her the money to attend a bathhouse.
CULTURAL ACTIVITIES AND PERFORMANCES
The Turkish bath was also a place full of hammam music, dance, traditional performances, and games. The acoustic system of hammams turned the sound of musical instruments and song lyrics into a musical show. The bath was designed to bring different social groups and families together. Hammam guests were sharing stories, songs, and laughter. Especially for women, they were places of entertainment with art, dancing, and singing.
In the past, Turkish women had much fewer entertainment options than men, so hammam tradition was especially served more to women. Turkish baths were important in terms of looking for an excuse to organize feasts for several occasions. They would rent it only for entertainment, and prepare meals and drinks before the event. Besides, women prepared some packs named bohça, filled with some of the most important traditional items used in a Turkish bath. They often represented the status of a family that organized the social event in a hammam tradition.
Turkish baths were also a space for discussions on art, literature, politics, and poetry, especially during the winter. Besides, in classical Turkish poetry, there were some special bath poets called “hammamiye”. What’s more, important poets of Ottoman times even mentioned Turkish baths in some of their poems.
TRADITIONAL FOOD AND REFRESHMENTS
In a Turkish bath, there was always time for eating, drinking, and relaxing. Sharing meals and being hospitable are behaviors very important in Turkish culture. For this reason, traditional hammam food and drinks served during the gatherings also have a special meaning. The guests were usually served Turkish tea, coffee, water, or a special cold drink called şerbet along with some fruit, fresh or dried.
Şerbet is a natural drink made with fruits and spices that played a very important role in Ottoman cuisine. Nowadays, it’s mostly popular in the month of Ramadan. Şerbet might be flavored with cloves, cardamom, fresh ginger, a cinnamon stick, honey, sage, and dried linden flowers. Served very cold, it’s refreshing and has an intense, sweet, and spicy flavor. In Ottoman times, it was often made with rose petals or saffron and presented beautifully to the guests.
ADAPTING THE HAMMAM TRADITION: IMPORTANCE OF THE GATHERING
Turkish bath gathering is crucial for strengthening community bonds and empowering social connections. Especially hammams for women were excellent examples of an informal kind of gathering and association. Women could only live with their families, and any men who weren’t related couldn’t see them in public. In this context, Turkish bath buildings were spaces where women could feel free outside their family homes.
Turkish public baths were intimately bound up with everyday life, no matter if it was a big city like Istanbul or a small Anatolian village. They were places where people from every social background – young and old, rich and poor – could come freely. Both men and women could enjoy all sorts of treatments for physical and mental well-being. They could do it through relaxation and rejuvenation on a beautiful flat platform made of marble called “göbek taşı”.
The tradition of Turkish hammams is to preserve cultural heritage and pass down the traditions to the next generations. Turkish bathing ritual generates a collective spirit. It promotes a sense of belonging and cultural identity. Although it has lost its vitality, the Turkish bath tradition still exists. It’s a crucial part of local culture, especially in Istanbul and some cities in Anatolia. Hammam rituals have become recognized among tourists visiting Turkish cities. Many foreigners wish to indulge in these authentic experiences that Turkish baths have to offer.
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