Mikkel Aaland

"It's All An Adventure"

Chapter 2: Mediterranean Baths

"Water of winter, heat of summer, sweetness of autumn, and smile of spring.-Islamic poet, 18th century


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ANKARA SURPRISED ME. I had dreamed of this ancient Turkish city, its spired mosques, fragrant bazaars and the opportunity to loll in its hammam – Islamic descendant of early Greek and Roman baths. I wasn’t prepared for a modern, fast-paced city with high-rise apartments, gleaming government buildings and snarled traffic rising from the flat expanse of the Anatolian Plateau.


A hammam in Ankara with a modern apartment complex in the background.


The afternoon I arrived, a gentleman from the Finnish Embassy invited me to bathe with him at his diplomatic club. Expecting a hammam, I was startled to find an excellent Finnish sauna. There, on a gleaming cedar bench, we fell into conversation with a Russian and a Turk.


“Ah,” lamented the Russian, “there are so many magnificent steam baths in Moscow. Yes, and the birch switches, the camaraderie of scrubbing – and the vodka!”


“This sauna is nice enough,” said the Turk, “but the hammam is so much softer and soothing – not nearly as intense as the sauna.”


The Finn simply smiled; he knew whose sauna we were using. Had a Japanese, Mexican or American Indian appeared then, I’m sure the discussion of baths would have carried far into the night.


The next day I endured a harrowing bus ride to Istanbul on a two-lane highway lined with the corpses of burned-out buses.


When I reached Istanbul my wracked nerves begged for the soft relaxing heat of a hammam. I checked into a cheap tourist hotel near the famous Blue Mosque. I recruited four Swedish lads in the lobby who appeared in need of a bath and we set out in search of a hammam.


We strode into the dense heart of the city, past dusty bazaars filled with rugs, water pipes, exotic clothes; past kebab shops and small houses, each blasting out piercing Eastern music from transistor radios. We finally came to a small sign marking the oldest existing bath in Istanbul, the Cagaloglu Hammam, over 400 years old. The facade was modest except for the door, painted in bright traditional designs. We pushed through arched portals into a smothering tranquility. We stood under a high domed roof beside a murmuring fountain that bubbled up from a tiled basin. As the door closed behind us, the din of the city was silenced. We were neophytes in a spacious sanctuary.



The Cagaloglu hammam, built in the 1500s, is the oldest functioning hammam in Istanbul. This 19th century drawing shows the harara (hot room) where the bather sweats, washes and is massaged.


“This is the real thing,” I whispered. “Look at the walls, the pillars, the arcs and arches. All this for a bath . . .”


“It seems like a monastery,” one Swede said.


“That’s it,” I replied, remembering my research. “It’s a kind of religious place. Architecture is the most important expression of Islamic art. They reject images or figures of living things. You see, they believe Allah is the sole author of life and anybody who tries to create a likeness of a living being is seeking to rival Allah, or beat him at his own game. So they concentrate on architecture. They enclosed space with elaborate and elegant structures out of reverence to Allah. Since physical purification is half of the Moslem faith, this is a very special place.”



Owner in the doorway of his hammam in Bursa. More than 20 hammams like this are scattered through this small Turkish community.


An impassive tellak (attendant) led us to dressing rooms on the perimeter of a round ceramic vestibule. (Impassive, perhaps, at first glance, I knew the tellak’s assignment in the hammam was more than an usher. He is also the bouncer. Should anyone “act indecent” or display his private parts, he would be ejected.) We took off our clothes and the tellak laid towels over our heads, shoulders, and wrapped our waists. Then we slipped our feet into wooden clogs, known as malma in Turkish, or lob cob in Arabic.



Shoes sold by this Turkish craftsman are carved from wood and have only a single strap. In earlier times, a wealthy bather would wear hammam shoes studded with jewels and elevated several inches.


The tellak beckoned us down a short passageway, through a set of swinging doors, and into the steam room (harara) where we shed all but the waist towels, deferring to the Islamic rule against nude bathing. Seemingly out of character, the tellak let out a prodigious shout that made me jump, even though I was expecting it. His shouts were to purge the room of dijans, phantoms traditionally believed to dwell in clouds of steam. As the reverberations subsided, I felt like a phantom myself as the five of us penetrated this stifling, steamy world where frail rays of light struggled to reach the stone floor.


We entered the first stage of the five-step progression through the hammam. First is the seasoning of the body with heat; second is the vigorous massage; third is the peeling off of the outer layer of skin, and removal of body hairs; fourth, the soaping, and fifth, relaxation.


Our tellak instructed us to lie on the massive octagonal marble slab that rose one meter above the floor. The slab was even hotter than the air and we immediately broke into a profuse sweat. As our limbs became soft and rubbery, we were ready for a Turkish massage.


The tellak had helpers. Three others, muscles rippling, joined him to loom over the Swedes. They began pulling, twisting, kneading and pummeling them like lumps of dough. One tellak seemed determined to see how many different pretzel shapes he could make out of the skinny Swede – I nearly bolted from the place.



The Cagaloglu hammam today. The fierce-looking masseur is really an expert whose knowledge of the human body brings a sense of euphoria after a session like this.


Some minutes later, with a last twist of ears and jerk of necks, the big Turks stepped down from the marble platform, leaving the Swedes limp on their stomachs. Except for a glow of sublime peace on their faces, each seemed lifeless.


I tried to relax. A large pair of calloused hands began to work on me. At the first touch I recognized expertise. Reassured, I surrendered completely.


The tellaks’ style and control were remarkable – powerful, relentless, yet agreeable. With joints cracking and muscles stretching, he pushed and urged the tips of my toes to touch the back of my neck, just to the point of excruciating pain, and then a quick release, triggering a flood of electric tingles down my spine, canceling my urge to scream. A surging pleasure rushed in where the pain had been.


I am told that over the centuries no one has ever been maimed by this violent massage; but I’m sure that if my body hadn’t been steam heated, a bone would have snapped, a muscle ripped, or a joint displaced. When the massage ended, I felt drained, as though I had endured a demanding workout – no wonder some consider the Islamic massage a substitute for the sport and exercise of the Roman bath.


For innocent visitors and most Moslems, the next step in the hammam procedure is tozu (depilation). Tozu is the process of removing axillary (armpit) and pubic hair. After a brief rest that allows you to catch your breath, a bather retreats into a solitary nook, a halvet, to attend to the depilatory process in private. It is an ancient tradition in the hot eastern countries and is an important hygienic measure. The reason being, despite thorough bathing, it is difficult to remain odor free and, at the same time, protect skin from irritation in a hot climate unless body hair is removed. Depilatory powder or razor blades are sold from kiosks either just outside or inside every hammam. While the powder no longer contains harsh agents like sulphurous arsenic, it removes body hair in a few minutes after it is mixed with water to form a paste and applied.


I never met a foreigner in Istanbul who underwent the process, but a few weeks later, in Bursa, it was a different story. Islamic faith prohibits men and women from bathing together. Either there are separate baths or men and women take turns in the same hammam. When the bath has been appropriated by women, a napkin, or a piece of drapery hung over the entrance gives notice. Because hammams are not coed, I had no way of knowing whether women’s bathing differed from men’s. So, in Bursa, I met two French women, willing to dedicate a couple of hours to my sweat-bath research. I bathed with their men friends while they “researched” the female hammam. Afterwards, we met outside. They gave me strange looks.


“How was it?” I asked.


“It was as you described, but . . . “ she looked at her friend. “You didn’t tell us about this!” She lifted her arm. “And you didn’t tell us about this!” She used both hands to point down toward her private parts.


Now back with the four Swedes in Istanbul. After the massage, we sat still for a while, slowly recovering. Finally we slipped on our clogs and clunked over to the marble basins ringing the circular harara. The tellak donned a coarse camel hair glove, doused me with water from a tas (large cup), and rubbed down my back with long sweeps from my shoulders to my waist. Days accumulation of dead skin and dirt curled into the hairs of the glove, making a grimy ball about the size of a fist. The Swedes, proud of the Mediterranean tan, were dismayed to see most of it disappear into the glove. My entire body was then soaped and rinsed by pouring a basinful of water over my head, one tas at a time.



These muscular Turks spend many hours lifting and dropping this roll of raw camel hair until it becomes soft and flexible. The roll is then spread out and cut into glove shapes and sold in the market for use in the baths. Camel hair is ideal for scraping loose and dead skin from a bather’s body.


After changing my wet linens, while the tellak held a decorous towel in front of me, we retired to the cooling maslak (the resting room) where large propeller fans slowly cooled us. We sagged deep into soft couches and let our blood cool, pores close, and skin crispness return. We were offered our choice of tea, coffee or a soft drink, and were invited to join a group of Turkish men around a small fountain. As we passed pipes of tobacco from hand to hand, they would smile at us and chuckle.


We paid 35 Turkish lire (about $3.50) for the entire experience. This was cheap for Istanbul, but expensive for the countryside hammams I visited later. Usually 10 lire (about $1.00) covered the expense. Back on the streets, the noisy, dusty, everyday world seemed strange after the halcyon atmosphere of the hammam.



For a small fee, an attendant will scrub and wash a bather. Soap is applied only after the camel’s hair brush has scraped off the dead layer of outer skin.


I spent a few weeks in Istanbul, visiting other hammams, and interviewing professors, doctors, and hammam experts of all kinds, then headed south in search of more. Bursa was my first stop, only a day’s boat and bus ride away from Istanbul. Bursa is a beautiful town nestled at the base of a high mountain range. Hammams were everywhere, almost on every corner – the norm for most Islamic cities. I was happy also to find an abundance of hot springs and several thermal baths in the area. Building baths over hot springs was a trick the Romans taught residents of the Anatolian Peninsula, and the Turks still use the idea.


From Bursa to Izmir, to Kusadasi, to the ruins of Roman baths at Pamukkale, to Burdur, Antalya, Mersin and then back to Tasuou. All told, I visited forty-four hammams and, except for architectural variations, the relaxing warmth, expert tellaks, and bather’s smiles were virtually the same. However, I did receive some suspicious stares the few times I walked into the harara, fully clad with cameras dangling from my shoulders. But that was to be expected.


Early Greek and Roman Baths


Today’s Mideastern bathing habits were inspired by ancient Greek and Roman baths.


Providing social and recreational activities was a basic responsibility for early Greek and Roman rulers. As a result, baths and adjacent gymnasiums were as ubiquitous in the old world as movie theaters and gas stations are now. In the Iliad, Homer often mentions the Greeks’ passion for bathing.


Although there were periods when Greek bathing consisted of no more than a quick plunge in cold water, Homer and other Greek writers, tell us the Greeks favored a variety of baths, from hot water tubs to hot-air baths, or laconica. It is believed the people of Laconica, the ancient region of Greece whose capitol was Sparta, conceived the idea.


Although historical accounts are sparse, we know that hot-air baths were heated either by direct coal burning fires, or by hot rock method (which sometimes meant heating the rocks outside the hot room and transporting them inside).


In the 5th century BC, when Herodotus described the vapor-drug bath of the Scythians, a nomadic tribe of the Ukraine region, he compared this primitive sweat bath to the baths of his homeland. “The Scythians take some of this hempseed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives off such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed.”


20th century excavations of a Greek bath by the Frenchman, Rene Ginouves, reveal the laconicum as an adjunct to the gymnasium. It sits between the palestra, where sporting events like the decathalon were held, and the semi-circle of the exedra, where quiet, contemplative discourse among such intellectuals as Plato and Socrates took place. The sweat rooms, according to Ginouves’ study, seems to have been built in the form of a rotunda, the roof tapering off into a cone shape up to a round opening at the top. The opening could be closed by a bronze lid operated by chains. (In his study, Ginouves also devotes a great deal of time to such social aspects of Greek bathing as the bath and the rites of marriage, the rites of death and the rites of birth.)



Reconstruction of an ancient Greek bath. – Rene Ginouves.


For all their love of bathing, Grecian structures never achieved the monumental dimensions of the Roman baths. However, the Greeks did plant the seed; from their small laconica, grew the Roman balneum and finally the extravagant Roman thermae.


Mass Bathing: The Roman BaInea and Thermae


When one thinks of Rome, visions of giant baths or thermae often cross the mind’s eye. These were indeed the first attempts to provide communal bathing on a grand scale. But the thermae were only one part of the Roman bathing world. Before Emperor Agrippa designed and created the first thermae in 25 BC, the smaller, more frequent balneum had been enjoyed by Roman citizens for more than 200 years.


The palestra (courtyard) of the Diocletian bath rendered by Edmund Paulin in the early 1800s. More than 3,200 Romans could bathe and exercise together. Paulin was reflecting his Victorian tastes when he drew clothes on the bathers when in fact they bathed naked.


While the thermae later became the central pleasure complex, complete with sports halls, restaurants, and various types of baths, the balnea were designed primarily for the neighborhood. There were an average of five bath houses per block, and one balneum for every 35 apartment buildings. The popularity of the balneum prompted Agrippa to build a colossal, centrally located bath house.


(I should note that not all Romans were enthused with the baths’ popularity. Seneca, the Roman statesman and philosopher, argued that sweating should come as a result of hard physical labor and not unproductive sitting in a hot room.)


The thermae, from the Greek word for “heat,” became the pet project for all Roman emperors following Agrippa. Each tried to out-do his predecessor, making his bath more spacious, more splendid, more popular. Principle baths, named in honor of the emperors who had them built, were: Nero in 65 AD, Titus in 81 AD, Domitian in 95 AD, Comodus in 185 AD, Caracalla in 217 AD, Diocletion in 305 AD, and Constantine in 315 AD.


To insure their popularity, and the emperor’s notoriety, entrance fees were ridiculously low, if not free. Without generating enough revenue to maintain themselves, the thermae had to be subsidized. Emperors, of course, enjoyed their own baths, and some were said to have bathed seven or eight times a day.


Like the balneum, the thermae sprung up everywhere in the Roman empire, from sandy African deserts to the snowy Alps, and as far north as England. Pompeii has one of the best preserved thermae. A sign announcing its opening is still legible on a wall: “There will be a dedication of the baths and the public is promised a slaughter of wild beasts, athletics, awnings to shade the sun, and perfumed sprinklings.”


Some of the thermae were large enough to accommodate thousands of bathers. The Diocletian bath had a capacity for 6,000 bathers. Such mass bathing could have only been possible with significant advances in Greek and early Roman technology.


The logistics of bath location were solved by improving the aqueduct, borrowed from the Greeks. Two other ingenious inventions acted like growth pills for the Roman bath: vaulted ceilings which supported massive roofs, and the hypocaust heating system.


Roman engineers devised the hypocaust method to heat bath air to temperatures exceeding 210 degrees F. (l00 degrees C.) – so hot that bathers had to wear special shoes to protect their feet from the blistering floor. They accomplished this by heating the marble floor, raised on pillars, with a log fire. Hot air was channeled through earthenware pipes in the walls. It took two or three days to heat a thermae, but that mattered little, as the baths were kept perpetually hot.



The Roman hypocaust – the most efficient method of heating. Whole trees were laid between the pillars and set fire. Flames would heat the floor and pass through wall flues to heat the chamber. Temperature of the bath could be regulated by a metallic damper which regulated the flow of fresh air.


For washing and bathing, aqueducts large enough to gallop a horse through brought cool running water over long distances, even to the arid reaches of the Empire where it was most needed. Meanwhile, architects were busy developing the vaulted ceiling. Cast from concrete in one rigid mass, they could span vast areas to enclose thousands of bathers.


The Romans either adopted, or at least tolerated, local customs so bathing rituals usually varied from province to province in the vast Empire and some of the baths survive even today. (The bath of Diocletian, for example, is now being used as a church in Rome, thanks to the restoration efforts of Michelangelo.) However, we infer by their design that the concept of a thermae was an all-encompassing recreational center.


Most thermae walls enclosed sports centers, swimming pools, parks, libraries, little theaters for poetry readings and music, and great halls for parties – a city within a city. There were also restaurants and sleeping quarters where a traveler or local could spend an intimate hour or two in pleasant company. Local bathers would spend an afternoon in the baths and then return home for dinner – the baths reputedly whetted the appetite.



A city within a city

A city within a city, the Roman thermae. Shops, inns and arcades surround the central core of baths. In the background are sports stadiums, gymnasiums and theaters.


Each thermae offered a particular attraction. One may have advertised a splendid view, another an excellent library and another a unique sports hall. Many were considered “free zones,” outside the jurisdiction of authorities. Perhaps this explains why, at times, the thermae were teeming with prostitutes in spite of municipal ordinances prohibiting them.


At the center, of course, the main attraction was always the baths themselves – hot water baths, cold water baths, hot-air baths, virtually every type of bath that ingenuity and lust for bathing could devise. The baths usually opened at midday so sportsmen could bathe and rest after their morning exercise. In the mornings prisoners were often brought under escort to bathe.


During the dawning years of Christianity, before the decline of Rome, it was forbidden to bathe on Sundays and holidays, but before then the thermae were rarely closed for any reason. Sometimes men and women bathed together, but this custom varied from one period to another and depended upon local attitudes. At Pompeii and Badenweiler, for example, men and women bathed separately.


Patricians, accompanied by a slave, brought their own bathing implements: brushes, an oil flask, a flat dish for scooping water and the strigil, a curved metal tool, for scraping off oils and sweat. All of these were attached to a ring for easy carrying. The poorer subjects of the Empire used the flour of lentils in lieu of oils and either scraped their own backs or enlisted the services of a friend.



Ring on which are hung some articles used in the Alipterium.


A typical routine might begin with a strenuous workout in the palestra, or courtyard, where various sports and activities loosened up the body and stimulated circulation. Games, using small leather balls, were popular in Rome and were considered a splendid way of conditioning the body – Caesar was said to have been an excellent ball player. Another popular sport was wrestling with a heavy sand-filled leather sack suspended from the ceiling.


Afterwards, the bather would trek through three rooms, progressing from tepid to hot. The first room was known, appropriately enough, as the tepidarium, the largest and most luxurious in the thermae. Here, the bather relaxed for an hour or so while being anointed with oils. Then he moved into the little bathing stalls of the caldarium, much like the halvet in Islamic hammams, providing a choice of hot or cold water for private bathing. They were usually built on the periphery of the main bathing room, under which the central fire burned. (As you might suspect our English word “caldron” comes from the Latin caldarius which means warming. Hence the caldarium was warmer than the tepidarium.)



Ground plan of the baths of Caracalla.


The final and hottest chamber was the laconicum. (The English word “laconic” comes from the regimented province of Laconica where people were characterized as brief, concise and terse.) After an understandably laconic stay in the laconicum, the body was primed for a vigorous massage, followed by a scraping off of dead skin with the strigil. A thorough scrubbing and a cool dip in the pool of the frigidarium was next. Refreshed and smelling like a rose, the bather then retired to the outer areas of the thermae where a library or an assembly room were among several attractions that encouraged intellectual pursuits.


Cathedrals of Flesh


That such graces of the Empire ever declined! But, the destruction of Rome and its baths occurred quickly. Plague swept over the Italian boot; debilitating conflicts rocked the throne; marauding “barbarians” struck savage blows; apathetic citizens grew in numbers. The Roman Empire rotted. Many great thermae became empty shells and the “Cathedrals of Flesh,” as Christians called them, simply disappeared.


The Islamic Hammam is Born

When the splendor of the Roman Empire receded into the boot of Italy, the architectural remains of the Greek baths and the balnea inspired the smaller and more modest hammams of Islam. However, not until Muhammed himself enthusiastically recommended sweat baths around 600 AD did the Islamic hammam begin to proliferate.


Spreader of Warmth


Muhammad believed that the heat of the hammam (which in Arabic means “spreader of warmth”) enhanced fertility, and the followers of the faith should multiply. Until the hammam caught Muhammed’s fancy, the Arabs used only cold water and never bathed in tubs, which was considered as bathing in one’s own filth. But when the conquering Arabs encountered Roman and Greek baths in Syria, holy men immediately adopted the pleasure of hot air bathing (perhaps to compensate for the joys of alcohol forbidden by their faith).



In Anataylia, Turkey as in all Islamic cities, the mosque is near the hammam. The hammam purifies the body while the mosque purifies the soul. Taxes on hammam use help pay the costs of the mosque.


When the Arabs captured Alexandria in 642, they reportedly heated the Roman baths for six straight months with parchment and papyri from the fabulous Ptolemaic library. As many as 700,000 works may have been burned.


As the Arabs picked up foreign bathing habits, they were quick to tailor them to their own ways. The hammam gained religious significance and became an annex to the mosque, used to comply with the Islamic laws of hygiene and purification. Physical and intellectual development was deemphasized, and only the massage remained.


Once the delight of the warm water sunk in, the cold water bath or shower after sweating no longer appealed to the Arabs. The hammam developed into a quiet retreat – an atmosphere of half-light, quiescence and seclusion. Architecturally, vaulted ceilings shrank as the buildings became smaller and modest. While the Romans built enormous central baths, the Arabs preferred several small baths throughout their cities, comparable to the Roman balnea. They still followed a progression through a series of hot rooms as in the thermae, but with different emphasis.


In the hammam the Roman tepidarium dwindled to a mere passageway leading from dressing room to harara (hot room) where, unlike the Roman caldarium, special massages were administered. A small steam room adjoining the harara replaced the laconicum. While the Roman bather finished with a stay in the library or study, the hammam bather ends where he or she began, lounging on couches in the rest hall while servants bring drinks and cool the bather with fans.




The hammam heating system: A–the caldron. B–Fire chamber. C–Fuel room. D–Bathing area. Hot bathing water circulates through pipes from the caldron to the bathing area. Hot air passes under the floor and through flues in the walls. – Karl Klinghardt


The hypocaust heating systems remained, but in some regions Arabs followed the Roman example of utilizing heat from their many hot springs. These hammams, called kaplica or ilica, have no sweat platform in the center of the hottest room. Instead, a pool of natural hot water heats the hammam. Because the water bubbled and flowed, the Arabs could take a dip in those pools without bathing in their own filth. (Bursa has some of the oldest kaplica or ilicas in all of the Middle East.)





Some hammams are built over natural hot springs. The hot waters easily heat the large chamber of the harara.


The oldest hammams were those of the Camayyad caliphs who subscribed to a semi-Bedouin way of life. They despised the regularity of towns and preferred nomadic life in the desert. Consequently, the first hammams were erected outside the cities, virtually in the wilderness. One of the oldest, the Kusair’Aman, rises unexpectedly from the flat barren plain near the Dead Sea.


As the Islamic faith spread, so did the hammam, which accounts for many still standing in Iran, Asia Minor, and across North Africa from Egypt to Morocco. Before the Arabs were repelled by rebellious subjects, there were hammams in Moorish Spain and high up the Danube River. Conquered temples, churches and baths were often converted into hammams – as the Islamic religion itself accommodated Jews and Christians, the hammam was flexible.


Like the Roman baths, the hammam became a place to socialize. “Your town is only a perfect town when there is a bath in it,” said Abu Sir, an early Arab historian. To promote the local hammam, entrance fees were so low everyone could enjoy them. “I leave it to the bather,” said a caliph in A Thousand and One Nights, “to pay according to his rank.” In an effort to keep tellaks honest, they were given the privilege of being tax exempt.


The baths were one of the few places in Islam open to everyone from early morning to late night, and sometimes longer. One of the attractions was the barber. He shaved faces, cut hair, let blood, and like the tellak, massaged and washed bodies. Because the barber was in such close contact with bathers, they were not allowed to eat garlic. An important task of the barber was scrubbing the soles of bathers’ feet to remove callouses. It was believed that de-calloused feet not only allowed bad vapors to escape but also drove away migraine headaches. When the bather stood up, fatigue and other undesirables flowed down and out through the feet. Barbers, privy to town and travel talk, were the hub of news and gossip.



The hammam.


It was common to treat friends to a bath, much like we would arrange a lunch date today. An Arab wise man, Munawe, recommended, “One should enter the baths with a group of friends who know stories and anecdotes because it drives your sorrows away...”


Aside from treating oneself to the pleasure of bathing and chat, people went to the hammam for religious cleansing. Before one would don new clothes, after a long journey, a convalescence, or release from prison – these were good reasons to clean up and check in with Allah.


The hammam was so much a part of town social life that even the wealthy, who usually owned private baths, frequented them. They chose public bathing to show the town they were clean. Although the baths were usually built under the auspices of mosque or government, they were often constructed by wealthy individuals as well. To build a hammam was a venture that pleased Allah as well as the people; so the wealthy were inclined to heed the advise of Yusuf B. ‘Abdalhadi, an early Arab writer, who said, “Whoever has committed many sins should build a bath (as penance).”


The owner of a bath would occasionally turn the proceeds over to schools, mosques or to other hammam ventures. When a new bath was opened, a herald proclaimed the news that the bath would be free to everyone for the first three days.


Order and cleanliness were essential to the hammams, so certain customs, enforced by law, were established. The police inspector was given the task of seeing that the baths were washed frequently, which entailed scrubbing the stone surfaces with a hard instrument to remove dirt and slippery traces of soap. The inspector also checked the quality of the water. Aside from cleaning the place, the attendants burned incense twice a day for purification. (In Turkey they use an incense called Gunnuk made from pine sap.) The hammam was required to be fully prepared before dawn so people could bathe before morning prayer.


Massage attendants rubbed their hands with pomegranate peel to harden them and give them a pleasant scent. Attendants also made sure no beans or peas were eaten in the hammam, no lepers were allowed inside, and anyone revealing a peek at his private parts was ejected. Not only was the hammam pleasurable, but it also brought luck as this old adage claims: “Whoever goes to the bath on forty consecutive Wednesdays will succeed at anything they do.”


To give bathing a more pious note, some works recommend that the bather consider the fires of hell while bathing. With its darkness and heat, the bath is a vision of hell, it was said, and it should not always be the visage of a joyous reality. A conversation among a vizier, a bath overseer and his two sons on the 132nd night of A Thousand and One Nights reveals the hammam’s heaven-and-hell paradox:


(The vizier says to the overseer) “Oh my lord! Verily the bath is the Paradise of this world.”


(The overseer replies,) “Allah vouchsafe to thee such Paradise and health to thy sons and guard them from the evil eye! Do you remember aught that the eloquent have said in praise of the bath?”


(To which the first son of the overseer Taj al-Mulak replies) “I will repeat for thee a pair of couplets;” and he recited,”The life of the bath is the joy of a man’s life, Save that time is short for us there to bide. A Heaven where irksome it were to stay; A Hell delightful at entering tide.”


(When he finished his recital the second son, Aziz, says) “And I also remember two couplets in praise of the bath.”


(To which the overseer says) “Let me hear them.”


(So Aziz repeated the following lines): “A house where flowers from stones of granite grow, Seen at its best when hot with living love: Thou deem’st it Hell but here, forsooth, is Heaven, And some like suns and moons within it show.”


Ginn, the Spirit of the Hammam


According to Islamic lore, the Ginn, a spirit who dwells in the water of springs and in the darkness of caves finds the damp darkness of the hammam ideal. And, what does one do when one encounters the Ginn? Etiquette is provided in the Figh (Islamic law). One should speak the Balmala, which is an invocation that means “In the name of Allah.” The Ginn should leave after hearing these words; but, if he doesn’t, one is urged to postpone one’s visit, otherwise the Ginn might slap the visitor in the face with a noise, which will either render the visitor’s voice useless or dislocate his jaw.



A hammam tellak in southern Turkey.


Of course, not all Ginns were malicious or even mischievous. If you were to ask a tellak about his particular hammam spirit, there is a chance that he might nonchalantly introduce you to the Ginn: “This is our Ginn who shows himself frequently and recites poetry as well.”


In some areas, the devil was reputed to use the hammam as his house. If one was not interested in meeting the devil, one would not bathe between the last two prayers of the day. That was the time when the devil and friends enjoyed their baths. If you found yourself in the hammam during the devil’s turn, you must open the encounter with an Adan (a recital from a religious text). That should send the devil running and, according to lore, farting away.


Often baths were protected from unfriendly spirits by placing an apotrapaic mark on the door. Muslims and Christians of Cairo were known to paint crosses on the doors.


Women and the Hammam


When Muhammed first advocated the use of the hammam for religious and recreational purposes, women were forbidden. But as hygienic benefits became apparent, “The Word” was reinterpreted and women were permitted after an illness or after they had given birth. Eventually, Arab men begrudgingly opened the pleasures of the hammam to women who, before then, had virtually no other opportunity to socialize with anyone outside the home. It wasn’t long before the “privilege” became a “right.”



Rendering of a women’s hammam from a folio in the Istanbul library, 1791.


The hammam became such an important part in the lives of Muslim women that if a husband were to deny his wife her visits to the hammam, she had grounds for divorce. Mothers found the opportunity to inspect prospective brides for their sons in the hammam, where no physical flaws or social foibles could escape notice. In fact, it was acceptable for a mother to kiss a possible daughter-in-law to learn whether or not she had bad breath.



18th century women’s bath.


In 1897 Mrs. Bernhard Stein, writing for the Neue Freie Press, commented about the hammam’s significance for the Turkish women:


“The hammam recompenses the Turkish women for all the amusements with which European women are indulged: theaters, dances, traveling. It is the only real variety in their dream-like lives. And life is indeed colourful and joyful in these miraculously beautiful halls walled in marble, where the echo repeats every word thrice. There the Turkish women sit, unveiled, in their patterned robes, smoking, gossiping, laughing, suckling their children or painting their faces.


“On the whole there is no better place for getting to know the happy inactivity of the Turkish woman’s life. Bathing articles are gathered together early in the morning and there are many of them – for a visit to the bath takes all day, or at least many hours. The whole menage is dragged along: rugs and mattresses in huge packages, shirts and trousers for the children – swaddling clothes are not used here, then the women’s own linen. Finally, but not the least in either quantity or quality, many kinds of food for lunch and dinner: cold eggs, roast mutton and dolma, the favourite dish of the East – chipped meat with rice and onion folded in a vine leaf – and finally, sheep cheese and fruit.”


Christians, Jews, and the Hammam


When Christians and Jews were first allowed to enter the baths, they were required by Islamic decree to wear either a wooden cross (for the Christians) or a calf-head emblem (for the Jews), thereby setting them apart from the Muslims. In some areas, Jews and Christians wore bells to distinguish themselves. The notion of constructing separate baths was considered, designating them appropriately with crosses and flower petals painted on the doors. However, very few separate Christian or Jewish bath houses were ever built.


The Hammam’s Medicinal Properties


As for the hammam’s medicinal properties, “The bath cured small pox and other hidden illnesses,” wrote the caliph al’Qu’imin in 1032. After centuries of healing, the hammam has picked up the nickname, “silent doctor,” from Muslims.


The Decline of the Hammam


In the mid 1800s, the hammams began losing their wealthy patrons who were feeling some of the effects of the Industrial Revolution in the West. Although the bathroom-with-shower had not reached the Near East, only the poorer classes were using the bath. The rich began withdrawing their support from the baths, stripping them of their ornaments, carpets, mosaics, and leaving them to lapse into decay.


I spoke with Dogan Kuban, director of the Istanbul Technological University, in 1974. “Hammams are dying out. They are too expensive to run. Water is costly to heat, repairs are numerous, and maintenance costs keep going up.” However, not all hammam experts agree with Kuban. Sabiha Tansug, an Istanbul woman who writes and lectures about the hammam at home and abroad, believes the Islamic bath is too much a part of Muslim religion to fade so easily. “We have to appreciate and study it for its own value, not as an interchangeable section, but as an indispensable detail of daily life.”


Is the hammam soon to join extinct Greek and Roman baths? If people like Sabiha Tansug represent incipient signs of nationalism or a true attachment to cultural heritage, there is good chance the hammam may regain its historic popularity.



A hammam in modern day Turkey.


The “Turkish Bath” Visits Europe and America


In 1850, anything oriental was in vogue and bathing caught the attention of Europe. David Urquart, author of The Pillars of Hercules, spent much time in Greece and Moorish Spain where hammams still enjoyed popularity. He was impressed by their extensive use by the poor and included detailed plans for the construction of a hammam or, as he coined it, a “Turkish bath.”


Urquart believed if a comparable structure could be built in the smoke-blackened towns of the British industrial centers, perhaps the filthy plight of the workers could be alleviated. So he offered a plan to establish 1000 “Turkish baths” for the two million inhabitants of London. He offered the bath house as the weapon in a “war waged against drunkenness, immorality, and filth in every shape.”


Urquart’s book received wide acclaim. One of the new enthusiasts, a Charles Bartholomew, with Urquart’s help, built one of these “Turkish baths” in his home. Bartholomew was suffering from a bad case of gout at the time. But soon after taking regular baths, he was cured. He became an instant prophet. He entertained many visitors at his bath and many left as converts. “I went there on crutches, but after a few baths, I was dancing to the bagpipes,” wrote General Abraham Sir Roberts.


Urquart’s book inspired Dr. Richard Barter to build the first “Turkish bath” in Ireland. St. Ann’s Hydropathic Institute opened in 1856. He built ten more such institutions before he died. Barter’s biography says, “What the secret of the transmutation of metals would have been to an alchemist of old, what the discovery of America was to Columbus, the Hot-Air Bath became to Dr. Barter.”


By 1862 this “Turkish bath” had appeared in Germany, England, America and Australia. The bath’s prototype was modeled after the bath Urquart described. Air was saturated with steam. But Barter was able to improve the bath by raising the temperature and creating the effect of a dry bath. It was called the “new and improved” Turkish bath, the Turkish-Roman bath, or the Roman-Irish bath.


In 1862, the Illustrated London News reported a company by the name of London and Provincial Turkish Bath was formed for the purpose of “realizing Mr. Urquart’s wish in the establishment of a genuine ‘hammam’ or ‘hot-air bath’.” Urquart became head of the company, and under his supervision, the baths at St. Jermyn Street were built.



Turkish bath on Jermyn Street, London.


Medical journals were full of glowing accounts for, and acrimonious accounts against, the Turkish baths. Pamphlets were published, lectures held, and discussion groups assembled. “The Turkish baths cured everything,” some said. “Urquart was a charlatan,” said others. General Sir George Whitlock said, “I was confined to my bed as a result of a kidney and liver infection, but after the third bath, I could ride my horse home at 3:00 in the morning all by myself.”


Some doctors claimed the Turkish bath was a good treatment for mental illnesses. And Dr. Robertson from Essex said the bath was good for “constipation, bronchitis, asthma, fever, cholera, diabetes, edema, syphilis, baldness, alcoholism, and not to mention the fact that the health of the average bather was improved.”


Soon Turkish baths appeared in Europe. They sprang up in Paris, and the German towns of Nudersdorff, Friedrischshafen and Wittenberg. The Swedish balneologist, Carl Curman, encouraged the construction of two Turkish baths in Stockholm. In 1871 he wrote Om Bad (About Baths), one of the first comprehensive studies of bathing habits, which lauded Urquart for introducing the Eastern bath to the West.



Turkish baths on Jermyn Street in London, showing the harara (hot chamber).


In America


In America, the Turkish baths never gained more than tentative popularity. The Industrial Revolution in Europe brought thousands of immigrants daily into the United States. Most of them were absorbed in the fast growing factories.


Socio-political adjustment and reform had a difficult time keeping up with the overwhelming numbers. Bathing facilities were sparse and the practice of bathing was endured rather than enjoyed. Five out of six city dwellers had “no facilities for bathing other than such provided by pail and sponge,” claimed a survey in the 1880s. A warm bath was for the infirm. Otherwise, a small basin of cold water and a wash cloth sufficed.


Tenement housing sprang up in industrial centers, but never included bathing facilities and little was done to provide them. Mass production of the tub and invention of the shower found immediate acceptance – an innovation consistent with the accelerated life style.


Whatever interest there was in public sweat baths waned as industrialization of America voraciously consumed most of the people’s free time. The few Turkish baths that did exist were usually for the wealthy or for therapeutic institutions, not for the general public.


In 1913, an American writer attempted to popularize the Turkish bath. J. J. Cosgrove, in his book, Design of the Turkish Bath, complained that Turkish baths were only accessible to the elite. “The Turkish bath by right must become a regular part of all hospitals, hotels, homes for the aged, even private homes.” He offered blueprints for building inexpensive Turkish baths in the home. But for every Cosgrove, there were a dozen politicians and writers suspicious of foreign customs, waving the flag for showers and tubs.


In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain sarcastically laid out his expectations of the Turkish bath in Turkey. “When I think how I have been swindled by books of oriental travel,” he lamented, “I want a tourist for breakfast. Here endeth my experience of the celebrated Turkish bath, and here also endeth my dream of the bliss the mortal revels in who passes through it. It is a malignant swindle. The man who enjoys it is qualified to enjoy anything that is repulsive to sight or sense, and he that can invest it with a charm of poetry is able to do the same with anything else in the world that is tedious, and wretched, and dismal, and nasty.”


Prevailing American sentiment in 1914 was capsulized by Dr. William Paul Gerhard in a report to the American Association for the Promotion of Hygiene and Public Baths. “Since the sweat bath is a very efficient cleansing bath, simple Turkish baths or hot-air rooms, should be included in municipal bath houses. I fear, however, that the added expense in construction and maintenance, which is not inconsiderable, would rule them out. Unless Turkish baths are very well patronized they are likely to prove a financial failure. There are few such establishments in the United States. They are not so necessary in our country, because of the universal use of bathrooms in the homes of the middle class and the rich . . .”


At a time when cities were vaguely interested in providing public baths in America, members of the medical profession advocated the more “economic and sanitary” shower over the communal sweat bath.


Turkish Baths Today


Those Turkish baths in America today are found in the larger cities and cater to few Americans. Rarely do they resemble the original hammams or even Urquart’s prototype.


In San Francisco, the Turkish bath on Ellis Street, opened to the public in 1911. Only men are allowed. For $4.00 you can enjoy a steam room, a dry-heat room, and showers. You can work out with gym equipment, relax in a small private dressing room, watch television or read in the study. Another $6.00 gets you a massage, “the way only a man can do it.”



San Francisco “Turkish” bath on Ellis Street.


After depositing your valuables and receiving a key and two towels, you go upstairs to your dressing room. Then, back downstairs, you walk a plush carpet separating a reading room from an enclosed, cool-water pool. Behind you, flanking the pool, is a spacious communal hall where bathers come to watch TV (a pale imitation of the Roman intellectual room). Beyond the exercise area is the dry heat room which encloses, in one corner, the smaller steam room. The dry-heat room, which hovers around 150 degrees F., is large enough for five chairs, four couches and two sets of six radiators that line two walls. Perhaps the size of this room is the only feature this bath has in common with its namesake, the hammam of the Middle East. If you ask anyone what made this a “Turkish Bath” they would probably shrug their shoulders and say, “Maybe it’s the steam room, or the hot room. I don’t know.”


Private Sweat Bathing Cubicles

A radically altered form of the Turkish bath caught the fancy of rural America in the late 1800s. A simple box in which a single person could sit and sweat was far from the communal Turkish; but entrepreneurs cleverly labeled these boxes “Turkish,” to give them a romantic appeal.





The principle had been used before, extensively. In Europe, these boxes, warmed by hot rocks and sometimes burning whiskey, were popular during the Middle Ages. A barrel, large enough to accommodate one person, was caulked and heated by burning spirits. These ancient steam cabinets were called Russian or oriental baths and were re-invented later as the steam or Turkish bath in America.





For 19th century America, these cubicles solved the problem of how to bathe in the nude without being seen. In rural areas lacking plumbing, sweat boxes were a practical alternative to spacious public baths. Mail order ads and traveling salesmen proclaimed doctor’s endorsements for the cure-all sweat boxes.




The 1854 Encyclopedia Britannica advises: “The vapour bath is infinitely superior to the warm bath for all purposes for which a warm bath can be given. An effective vapour bath may easily be had in any house at little cost and trouble.”



The Britannica then offered a simple method of making a sweat bath at home: heat a brick in the oven and place it in a metal basin; then pour water over it to produce steam. The bather, wrapped in a towel, should sit on a chair above the brick. Another method was the Quaker model which sold for $5.00 by mail order. It was a fabric cylinder enclosing a chair and spirit lamp. The bather sat for 15 minutes or so, sweating in the hot, dry air.



A more elaborate steam bath, patented in 1814, included an impressive boiler to feed steam under a bed cover, and a four-posted canopy with curtains to form a roomy steam tent. Variations on such inventions flooded 19th century magazines and catalogs.




These private “saunas,” as they are now called, were never widely popular in the United States, although they do have a few fervent followers. They are found in health spas, trailer courts, massage parlors, local gymnasia, as well as private homes.




Return to the Sweat home page, here.


The Illustrated History and Description of the Finnish Sauna, Russian Bania, Islamic Hammam, Japanese Mushi-Buro, Mexican Temescal, and American Indian & Eskimo Sweatlodge


by Mikkel Aaland

©1978 & 2018 All Rights Reserved




©2024 Mikkel Aaland

All Rights Reserved

A city within a city

A city within a city