The Turkish bath or hamman (the root of which means "to heat") draws on the benefits of steam and sweat. Sweat will carry toxins from the system, and as your pores become open and receptive, so will your mind.

The tradition of the Turkish bath extends far back, to a time before Turks had reached Anatolia. When the Turks arrived in Anatolia, they brought with them one bathing tradition, and were confronted with another, that of Romans and Byzantines, with certain local variants. The traditions merged, and with the addition of the Moslem concern for cleanliness and its concomitant respect for the uses of water, there arose an entirely new concept, that of the Turkish Bath. In time it became an institution, with its system of ineradicable customs.

A typical hammam includes a warm room, hot room, and steam room, with dressing rooms and areas for massage, relaxation, and refreshment, but omits the Roman cold plunge or swimming pool.

Washing, becomes a socializing act
For the Turkish bath was much more than just a place to cleanse the skin. It was intimately bound up with everyday life, a place where people of every rank and station, young and old, rich an poor, townsman or villager, could come freely. Women as well as men made use of the “hammam”, as the bath is known in Turkish, although of course at separate hours.

The main reason why hammams 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 hammams in their houses, dropped by the hammam in their district once a month.

The routine ritual of going to the hammam 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 hammam.

Over time, the washing aspect of going to hammams 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 hammams in the Ottoman period was the “removal of body hair.” Much fiction and research penned by Europeans give detailed accounts of this.

Feeling clean inside and out
The Hanafi branch of Islam, which includes the Sunni Turks, demands that every part of the body should be free from hair. Therefore, at each hammam 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.

Therefore, there were two basic functions of going to hammams. The first, to wash so that one could pray or go to the mosque. The second, to make women’s lives less boring. Hammam 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 hammams, but ending up somewhere else.

As mentioned previously hammams 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 hammams for this very reason. Then there were “wedding hammams,” just before the wedding, which resembled modern bachelor parties.

Here is a quotation from N.M. Penzer’s “Harem”: “Now it is time for the most rewarding part of the hammam 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.”

The process starts in the “Hot” room. The Romans called it the calderium, the Turks call it the SICAKLIK. Just sit on the marble and pour water over yourself. As you relax with the moderate heat (not as hot as sauna) and water, it seems like it is only natural to start singing. They say that any voice will sound good under the dome of the Turkish bath.

The copper bowls with a little dimple in the middle will clack on the marble once in a while. The sound will be like a percussion in a badly conducted orchestra. But soon you will be so relaxed even that sound will not bother you. When the skin is softened enough you will move to your next spot. The big marble set in the middle of the bath is called the Navel Stone. Lay on it and let your body be treated by the expert hands.

You will be scrubbed with a “kese.” The dead skin will come out like tootsy rolls. Then you will be soaped and massaged. When the washing part is finished the pleasure of being in the Turkish bath is not finished yet. You will be wrapped in colourful Pestemals (Turkish Towel). While you are sitting in the cold part of the bath, the frigidarium, you will be served tea to complete the most relaxing experience in your life.

You will smell the clean smell of the olive oil soap and your skin will fell like a baby when you leave the hundreds of years old Turkish bath. If ladies want to color their hair with henna, a Turkish bath is the right place to do it.

“Hammams” are an intriguing subject, as the history of hammams reflects the history of the synthesis between the East and West. Through the history of the hammam, 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.