Turkish baths are called Hammams, originating from the Arabic word “hamma", which means heating up. These baths are a happy marriage between the bathing cultures of Central Asia and the new influence of the Roman empire.
The Turkic people had been enjoying steam baths for some time, but the Romans introduced them to the idea that bathing wasn’t just about hygiene and necessity, but that bathhouses could be social institutions.
During the Ottoman period, countless hammams were built around city centers, trading outposts, and marketplaces. Unlike Roman baths, which were more focused on entertainment and recreation, Turkish baths were often tied to the church and had a more charitable mission. Some had libraries, soup kitchens, lodging, mosques, or even hospitals. The funds generated from the baths were put back into the facilities for maintenance, and also helped support the royal family. The baths played a huge role in the Ottoman social system. Larger facilities had double amenities to separate men and women, while the smaller baths would be available to men and set aside “women only” hours. Women attended the baths in large groups, and although you didn’t have to be elite to use the space, it was an opportunity to flaunt your wealth if you had it. Most women had at least a dozen bathing accessories in their bathing kits. Bath bowls, soap dishes, combs, jewelry dishes, clogs, mirrors, towels, combs, you name it. The more elaborate your accessories, the higher your status. Being tied so closely with the church, bathing traditions not only surrounded everyday life, they were involved in every major milestone. There were special ceremonies held after births, deaths, weddings and holidays.
Upon entering a hammam, you remove your clothes in a changing room. From here on out, you’ll be completely naked or be provided with a small wrap to cover up. Once changed, you spend about 15 minutes in the hararet, which is essentially a sauna. This is called the “hot room rest” to warm up the body, open your pores and prepare you for the scrub. After the hot room, your hammam attendant, called a tellak (male) or natir (female), will bring you into the scrub room. Typically you’ll lay down on a göbektaşi, a heated marble slab, and be doused with buckets of hot water. The attendant will then scrub you down with a handwoven mitt, known as a kese. This scrub is fairly abrasive and sloughs off outer layers of skin, leaving you softer than you have probably ever been. After another wash comes the bobble massage. Suds are created by dipping a cloth bag called a torma, into soapy water and then blowing into the torma to inflate it. The suds are applied liberally to the bather for their deep tissue massage. One final rinse and then a cool down in the soğukluk. The service will end with a bit of Turkish delight or tea, and then you’ll be on your way.
Where to go
- For a traditional experience visit the Cağaloğlu Hamami. Built in 1741, the facility is a beautiful window into another era. Cağaloğlu has several options on their service menu. There is a drop in rate where you can come to the sauna, bathe, and do your own skin treatments and from there the menu changes mostly in terms of length and focus of massage. I recommend getting a service with the attendant for an authentic treatment.
- The Rudas Thermal Bath was built in Budapest during the Turkish occupation of the 16th century. Budapest has amazing thermal springs which were utilized in the design. Along with traditional amenities, there is a hotel, swimming facility, and food hall available to visitors.
- If you’re traveling in the UK, visit Pasha Spa. Pasha has taken traditional Turkish treatments and concepts and applied them to a more boutique setting. The experience will feel more luxurious than timeless, but there’s a place for that too!
What to expect
- Hammams will have two separate quarters for men and women.
- The attendant will be the same gender as you. Make sure you tip your attendant! 20% is the norm.
- After your service, you may stay and relax in the baths, but there is only one round of scrubbing.
- You’ll probably be naked! You will have a small bath wrap, but most people don’t wear anything underneath those.