16 Jun History of Hammam: Ancient origins and historical accounts
The history of the hammam goes centuries back, and you can feel like you are traveling through time when you first step into a historic hammam. Traditional bathhouses have played a significant role in Turkish culture for centuries, serving as a place for socialization, cleansing, and relaxation. But do you know where did this practice originate from, and how these bathing traditions were kept alive for centuries? We are here to talk about the history of hammam, with facts you may not even know!
While traditional hammams can be found in a vast region from Morocco, to Greece and Iran, we will mostly talk about the history of Hammams in the Ottoman Empire, and modern-day Turkey. So without further ado, let’s dive into the history of hammams!
It all started with the Greeks and Romans
The origin of the hammam starts with the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greeks and Romans had a long tradition of public bathing until the practice became unpopular. The decline of the public bath coincided with the expansion of Muslim and Arabic states in the Middle East. In short, the Muslims adopted the public bath practices but changed some aspects to be in harmony with Islam. If you would like to learn more about the difference between Roman baths and Turkish baths, we have an article where we compare them!
Hammams in the Islamic context
Hammams are extremely popular in some parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and in some parts, it has lost its popularity. However, for many centuries, hammams served as a place where Muslims can practice spiritual and physical cleanliness, which are very important in Islamic tradition.
For starters, most hammams were part of a large mosque complex or were closely located near a mosque. Almost all mosques have a special fountain area where the congregation can perform wudu, and spiritually & physically cleanse their bodies before a prayer.
Another type of spiritual cleansing is called ghusl, and it’s usually performed after the menstrual bleeding has stopped, or after sexual activity to cleanse the body. It involves submerging the entire body or standing under running water. However, there was one caveat. The Roman bathhouses included a cold water pool for plunging. The Islamic scholars found the “pool” to be unhygienic (as opposed to natural water sources). So the pool was removed from the hammam design in Islamic hammams in the Ottoman Empire, and the use of water from the hammam faucets was sufficient.
How does it compare to a Jewish Mikvah?
Since both Mikvahs and Hammams have religious affiliations, if you are not part of a Muslim or Jewish community, you might think they are similar. The main difference between these two is their purpose: the Mikvah’s purpose is to spiritually cleanse oneself, or one’s items through a ritual bath. While the Hammam’s main purpose is physical cleanliness. Though in a Hammam, you can still practice spiritual cleanliness rituals called “wudu” and “ghusl” (abdest in Turkish), which can be performed in many places or environments, with or without water being present, before a prayer.
The Ottomans loved hammams
The Ottomans loved the hammam so much that we can say they’re responsible for introducing it to many geographies! Today, you can find baths built by the Ottomans from Hungary, to remote parts of Anatolia; some in great shape, and some abandoned. In Istanbul especially, some of these historic hammams still stand, and accept patrons to this very day.
Even when the construction of new hammams was halted to limit the use of water and firewood, the Ottomans loved the hammam so much that many wealthy families resorted to building private hammams incorporated into their residences.
How the Ottomans named hammams
Hammams could be named after various things. Usually, hammams were named after the neighborhood they were in, the palace or mosque they were a part of or the patron who funded the construction of the hammam. Aside from these, hammams could be named based on what kind of patrons it was frequented by; women’s, Roman, and Armenian hammams were frequented by their respective groups, while Paşa (Pasha) hammams were frequented by high dignitaries.
Women's hammams in the Ottoman Empire
Women’s hammams were one of the few places where women could gather without men being present. In the hammam environment, women were able to listen to music, dance, eat, and enjoy drinking tea and coffee and socializing. Women would have their intricately designed hammam accessories such as soap boxes, hair combs, and bath clogs with them which displayed their wealth and status.
Did you know there was a hammam on the Titanic?
In the 19th century, there was a boom of Victorian Turkish Baths in the UK, inspired by the Ottoman and Moroccan bathhouses, although they aren’t that similar to a traditional Turkish bath. According to Malcolm Shifrin, the Victorian Turkish bath had very dry air compared to the extremely humid environment of a traditional Turkish bath (90-100% humidity). The first Victorian Turkish bath was constructed in Ireland in 1856. Soon, the UK had hundreds of public baths available. And of course, the passengers of the Titanic weren’t exempt from enjoying this luxury during their voyage.
Among the many luxury amenities presented to the first-class passengers on the Titanic, there was also a Turkish bath. But even the first-class ticket wasn’t enough to get access to the bath, you needed a special pass for entrance that would cost around 30$ today! The Turkish bath featured a hot room, a steam room, a temperate room, and a cooling room. The hammam was available to female guests between 9:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m., and to male guests between 2 and 6 in the afternoon.
Lady Mary Montagu's accounts
Lady Mary Montagu has a collection of letters she wrote during her stay in Turkey, as her husband served at the embassy called “Turkish Embassy Letters”. Lady Montagu’s accounts are exceptional because as a woman, she had the ability to visit women-only spaces in a time when most of the stories about the hammams or the harem were grossly fictionalized by male writers who did not have access to these spaces.
In her 27th letter, Lady Montagu accounts for her visit to a Turkish hammam in Sofia (today Bulgaria) in positive terms. She starts by describing the various chambers of the hammam, and their purpose. And even though she wasn’t dressed for the occasion, she talks about how she wasn’t criticized in any way and was received civilly. This stood out in stark contrast to her experiences in Europe, where ladies would make a great deal of gossip if one wasn’t dressed for the occasion.
During her visit, the hammam had about 200 women guests, and all in a state of nature, with no distinction between the noble women or the servants, and with no immodest gestures between them. The women patrons of the hammam would pay a visit at least once a week, and spend at least 4 to 5 hours in the bath.
This 18th-century account is surely one of the most accurate depictions of a hammam in Western literature
Hammams in modern Turkey
Countless modern and historical hammams are still in operation in Turkey and are welcoming both local patrons and tourists. For the locals, the main purpose of the hammam today is a hub for keeping traditions and bathing rituals alive, such as a bridal hammam and having a relaxing spa experience with friends or family. And for tourists, hammams are a unique chance to experience a traditional ritual kept alive for hundreds of centuries.
Today, you can get various services in a hammam from a traditional bath to different kinds of massages, skin care treatments, hair removal, and various service options like a bridal hammam bachelorette party. Besides the historical hammams, many hotels in Turkey have modern hammams & spa complexes where you can enjoy a variety of services.
We recommend you try this unique experience at least once in your lifetime if you can. If you are planning on visiting Turkey, especially Istanbul, you can book a session with us for an authentic Turkish bath experience in the city, and many other massage & spa services.