Combining elements the Roman thermae and baths with the Central Asian Turkic tradition of steam bathing and ritual cleansing, the hammam has been central to the culture of the Muslim world for centuries, serving as a place to purify both the body and the soul. The Umayyad caliphs of seventh century Damascus built elaborate private baths as part of their imperial palaces and medieval authors mention hammams alongside mosques and madrasas in their descriptions of prosperous Middle Eastern cities. But it was the Ottoman Empire that led to the proliferation of opulent public bathhouses such as the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, built at the request of Hurrem Sultan, the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent; the Çemberlitaş Hamam, commissioned by Nurbanu Sultan, the head of Istanbul's imperial harem; and the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam, contracted by the Grand Admiral of the Ottoman fleet. Featuring dramatic archways, soaring domes, and elaborate tiled and inlaid marble interiors, it is the Turkish bath that has become synonymous with the hammam experience.
The antithesis of bathing as a private activity, the hammam merged the intimate with the social, serving not only as a place for purification before prayer but as space for celebration and ceremony. The hammam became a gathering place where discussions were held on art, literature, politics and poetry, with the Ottomans even developing a specific style of ‘hammamiye’ poetry during the 16th century dedicated to the joys of the hammam. For many years the bathhouses also provided a vital space for women who were largely limited to the home. Women were able to attend in groups and preparing for the hammam was an activity of great importance. Paintings in the Qasr al-Mshatta winter palace in Amman, Jordan dating to back to 600 AD show women carrying buckets holding oils, perfumes, combs and scrapers. Wealthier clients brought their own bath bowls made of silver, bronze or copper decorated with reliefs, towels with intricate embroidery and wooden nalin hammam slippers inlaid with of mother-of-pearl or adorned with silver bells.
Traditional Turkish baths consisted of three interconnecting rooms: the camekan, the sıcaklık, and the soğukluk. And whether the structure was a public or private bath, the ritual remained the same and would be stretched out over several hours. Upon entering the camekan, the area that served as a reception and locker room, bathers would undress and don a traditional Turkish haveli or peştamel towel and a pair of wooden clogs to prevent slipping on the wet floors. Attendants called a tellak or natir, escorted bathers to the main room, the sıcaklık or steam room, ringing with the sounds of splashing water, its dome-shaped roof decorated with circular or star-shaped windows with a large, central marble slab, called a göbek taşı, surrounded by fountains - here is where the process of sweating, exfoliation, soaping and rinsing took place. The final room, the soğukluk, was used for relaxation and socializing over tea, fruit and sweets.
Transformative, restorative, connective: the hammam expands the ritual self-care out of the realm of self-isolation into one of communal healing. As the Arabic proverb goes,
“Entering the hammam is not the same as leaving it.”