The hammam or Turkish bath is the Middle Eastern variant of a
steam bath, which can be categorized as a wet relative of the sauna.
They had 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 Hammam via
contacts with Turkey hence the European name for it: "Turkish" hammam.
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 bathing practices of the Romans.
Taking a Turkish bath firstly involves relaxing 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 ever 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 hammams to fade in recent times.
The hammam 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 hammam 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 hammams 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 Hammam in Istanbul, built in 1584.
A typical hammam 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 hammams in Istanbul also contain mikvehs, ritual cleansing baths for
The hammam, like its early precursors, Roman (at least pre-Christian)
thermae, is not exclusive to men only - hammam complexes usually contain
separate quarters for men and women. Being social centers, in the
Ottoman Empire, hammams 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 hammams: 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, Suleymaniye,
Istanbul) They were recruited from among the ranks of the non-Muslim
subject nations of the Turkish empire, such as Greeks, Armenians, Jews,
Albanians, Bulgarians, Lebanese, Roma and others.
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.
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.
Public baths today
Public baths are common in many countries, such as Japan, Korea, and
Germany. In modern Russia, much political and economic business is
conducted in mens-only steam baths. Public baths are popular in hotels
or resorts and retreats. Services such as back scrubbing, steam rooms,
saunas, and pools of various temperatures are common.
Ancient Greek and Rome
In The Book of the Bath, Françoise de Bonneville wrote, "The history of
public baths begins in Greece in the sixth century B.C.," where men and
women washed in basins near places of exercise, physical and
intellectual. Later gymnasia had indoor basins set overhead, the open
maws of marble lions offering showers, and circular pools with tiers of
steps for lounging.
Bathing was ritualized, becoming an art -- of cleansing sands, hot
water, hot air in dark vaulted "vapor baths," a cooling plunge, a
rubdown with aromatic oils. Cities all over Ancient Greece honored sites
where "young ephebes stood and splashed water over their bodies."
Romans adopted this Greek model of "warmth and conviviality," albeit
with their usual excess. The first public thermae of 19 BC had a rotunda
25 meters across, circled by small rooms, set in a park with artificial
river and pool. By 300 AD the Baths of Diocletian would cover 1.5
million square feet (140,000 m²), its soaring granite and porphry
sheltering 3,000 bathers a day.
Roman baths became "something like a cross between an aquacentre and a
theme park," with pools, game rooms, gardens, even libraries and
One of the most famous public bath sites is Aquae Sulis in Bath,
England. It is no longer in use, but when it was, its waters were
believed to cure diseases.
The largest baths in Rome were the Baths of Caracalla built by the
emperor Caracalla (211-217), where men and women had mixed freely. Laws
were soon brought to suppress "licentiousness" (mixed and otherwise).
Few worked. In 320 AD women were barred from the thermae. At the end of
that century St John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, banned
The Ottoman Empire
During the Ottoman Empire, public baths, inherited from Byzantium, were
widely used. The baths had both a religious and popular origin deriving
from the Qur'an (ablution ritual) and the use of steamrooms by the
In medieval Europe, the Roman custom of public bathing was maintained in
some form through bath houses. These became vital community centers,
important for gossip and business. Bath houses were known as 'stews', a
word that then remained associated with all brothels, even those not in
A sauna is a small room or house designed as a place to experience dry
or wet heat sessions, or an establishment with one or more of these and
auxiliary facilities. These facilities derive from the Finnish sauna.
A sauna session can be a social affair in which the participants disrobe
and sit or recline in temperatures of over 80 °C (176 °F). This induces
relaxation and promotes sweating.
History of sauna
The oldest known saunas were pits dug in a slope in the ground and
primarily used as dwellings in winter. The sauna featured a fireplace
where stones were heated to a high temperature. Water was thrown over
the hot stones to produce steam and to give a sensation of increased
heat. This would raise the temperature so high that people could take
off their clothes.
Eventually the sauna evolved to use a metal woodstove, or kiuas , with a
chimney. Air temperatures averaged around 160-180 degrees Fahrenheit
(70-80 °C) but sometimes exceeded 200 °F (90 °C) in a traditional
Finnish sauna. Steam vapor, also called, was created by splashing water
on the heated rocks.
When the Finns migrated to other areas of the globe they brought their
sauna designs and traditions with them, introducing other cultures to
the enjoyment and health benefits of sauna. This led to further
evolution of the sauna, including the electric sauna stove, which was
introduced in the 1950s and far infrared saunas, which have become
popular in the last several decades.
The modern sauna
Many North American and Western European college/university physical
education complexes and many public sports centers and gyms include
sauna facilities. They may also be present at public and private
swimming pools. This may be a separate area where swimming wear may be
taken off or a smaller facility in the swimming pool area where one
should keep the swimming wear on.
Good manners require that the door to a sauna not be kept open so long
that it cools the sauna for those that are already in it. Leaving the
door even slightly ajar or keeping it open for more than a few seconds
will significantly cool down the relatively small amount of hot air
inside the sauna.
Infrared saunas are growing in popularity, using far infrared rays
emitted by infrared heaters to create warmth.
Saunas can be dangerous. Heat prostration or the even more serious
hyperthermia (heat stroke) can result. A cool shower or plunge
afterwards always results in a great increase in blood pressure, so
careful moderation is advised for those with a history of stroke or
hypertension (high blood pressure). A good practice is to take a few
moments after exiting a sauna before entering a cold plunge, and to
enter a cold plunge by stepping into it gradually, rather than
immediately immersing fully.