The Turkish bath (hamam; from حمّام, ) is the Middle Eastern variant of a steam bath, which can be categorized as a wet relative of the sauna. They have played an important role in cultures of the Middle-East, serving as places of social gathering, ritual cleansing, and as architectural structures, institutions, and (later) elements with special customs attached to them. Europeans learned about the Hamam via contacts with the Ottomans, hence the "Turkish" part of the name.
In Western Europe, the Turkish bath as a method of cleansing the body and relaxation was particularly popular during the Victorian era. The process involved in taking a Turkish bath is similar to that of a sauna, but is more closely related to the ancient Roman bathing practices.
A person taking a Turkish bath first relaxes in a room (known as the warm room) that is heated by a continuous flow of hot, dry air allowing the bather to perspire freely. Bathers may then move to an even hotter room (known as the hot room) before splashing themselves with cold water. After performing a full body wash and receiving a massage, bathers finally retire to the cooling-room for a period of relaxation.
In Turkey, the advent of modern plumbing systems, showers, and bathtubs in homes caused the importance of hamams to fade in recent times.
The hamam combines the functionality and the structural elements of its predecessors in Anatolia, the Roman thermae and Byzantine baths, with the Central Asian Turkish tradition of steam bathing, ritual cleansing and respect of water. It is also known that Arabs have built many of their own version of the Greek-Roman baths they encountered following their conquests of Alexandria. However, the Turkish bath has a more improved style and functionality from these structures that emerged as annex buildings of mosques or as re-use of the remaining Roman baths.
The hamams in the Ottoman culture started out as structural elements serving as annexes to mosques, however quickly evolved into institutions and eventually with the works of the Ottoman architect Sinan, into monumental structural complexes, the finest example being the "Çemberlitaş Hamamı" in Istanbul, built in 1584.
A typical hamam consists of three interconnected basic rooms similar to its Roman ancestors: the sıcaklık (or hararet -caldarium) which is the hot room, the warm room (tepidarium) which is the intermediate room and the soğukluk which is the cool room.
The sıcaklık usually has a large dome decorated with small glass windows that create a half-light; it also contains a large marble stone at the center that the customers lie on, and niches with fountains in the corners. This room is for soaking up steam and getting scrub massages. The warm room is used for washing up with soap and water and the soğukluk is to relax, dress up, have a refreshing drink, sometimes tea, and where available, nap in private cubicles after the massage. A few of the hamams in Istanbul also contain mikvehs, ritual cleansing baths for Jewish women.
The hamam, like its early precursors, Roman (at least pre-Christian) thermae, is not exclusive to men only - hamam complexes usually contain separate quarters for men and women. Being social centers, in the Ottoman Empire, hamams were quite abundant, and were built in almost every Ottoman city. Integrated in daily life, they were centers of social gatherings, populated on almost every occasion with traditional entertainment (e.g. dancing and food, especially in the women's quarters) and ceremonies, such as before weddings, high-holidays, celebrating newborns, beauty trips etc.
There existed some special accessories of which some still are being used at modern hamams: such as the peştemal (a special cloth of silk and/or cotton, to cover the body, like pareos), nalın (special wooden clogs that would prevent the wearer from slipping on the wet floor, often decorated with silver or mother-of-pearl), kese (a rough mitt for massage), and sometimes jewel boxes, gilded soap boxes, mirrors, henna bowls, perfume bottles and such.
Traditionally, the masseurs in the baths, tellak in Turkish, who were young boys, helped wash clients by soaping and scrubbing their bodies. They also worked as sex workers. We know today, by texts left by Ottoman authors, who they were, their prices, how many times they could bring their customers to orgasm, and the details of their sexual practices (From the Dellâkname-i Dilküşâ, eighteenth century work by Dervish, Ismail Agha; Ottoman archives, Süleymaniye, Istanbul).
At times the relationship between a tellak and his client became intensely personal. It is recorded that in the mid-18th century, a janissary — an elite soldier in the Ottoman army, also often of European descent — had a tellak for a lover. When the latter was kidnapped by the men of another regiment and given over to the use of their commander, a days-long battle between the two janissary regiments ensued, which was brought to an end only when the Sultan ordered the tellak hanged.
After the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman empire, in the quickly westernizing Turkish republic the tellak boys lost their sexual aspect, and now the tellak's role is filled by adult attendants who specialize in more prosaic forms of scrubbing and massage. Yet in Turkish the term hamam oğlanı, 'bath boy,' is still used as a euphemism for a homosexual.
Dating back to French rule and located in the heart of Nicosia's old town is Hamam Omerye - a true working example of Cyprus' rich culture and diversity, stone struggle, yet sense of freedom and flexibility. The site's history dates back to the 14th century, when it stood as an Augustinian church of St. Mary. Stone-built, with small domes, it is chronologically placed at around the time of Frankish and Venetian rule, approximately the same time that the city acquired its Venetian Walls. In 1571, Mustapha Pasha converted the church into a mosque, believing that this particular spot is where the prophet Omer rested during his visit to Lefkosia. Most of the original building was destroyed by Ottoman artillery, although the door of the main entrance still belongs to the 14th century Lusignan building, whilst remains of a later Renaissance phase can be seen at the north-eastern side of the monument. In 2003, the [EU] funded a bi-communal UNDP/UNOPS project, "Partnership for the Future", in collaboration with Nicosia Municipality and Nicosia Master Plan.
Budapest has four working Turkish Baths, all from the 16th century: Rudas Baths and Király Baths are currently open to the general public, while Rác Spa Bath is just being reconstructed and Császár Spa Bath is not a public thermal bath.
In 1856, Richard Barter, having read Urquhart's book and worked on the construction of a bath with him, opened the first modern Turkish bath in the United Kingdom at St Ann's Hydropathic Establishment near Blarney, County Cork, Ireland. The following year, the first Turkish bath to be built in England since Roman times was opened in Manchester, and the idea spread rapidly through the north of England. It reached London in July 1860 when Roger Evans, a member of one of Urquhart's Foreign Affairs Committees, opened a Turkish bath at 5 Bell Street, near Marble Arch.
During the following 150 years, well over 600 baths opened in Britain, while similar Turkish baths opened in cities in other parts of the then British Empire. Dr. John Le Gay Brereton, who had given medical advice to bathers in a Foreign Affairs Committee-owned Turkish bath in Bradford, travelled to Sydney, Australia, and opened a Turkish bath there in Spring Street in 1859, even before the bath had reached London. Canada had one by 1869, and the first one in New Zealand was opened in 1874. Urquhart's influence was felt even outside the Empire when, in 1863, Dr. Charles Shepard opened the first Turkish bath in the United States at 63 Columbia Street, Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn.
Today there are just over twenty Turkish baths remaining open in the United Kingdom, including those in London, Harrogate and Nottingham, although hot-air baths still thrive in the form of Russian steam baths and the Finnish sauna.
Photos of Hamams in Muslim and Arabic countries
Introduction of Turkish baths to Europe