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Hamam (Turkish Bath)

What is water… H20; hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing that makes water and nobody knows what that is!

This is well known quote from D.H. Lawrence: 

Water is a philosophy, a culture and the one essential to all life.

What is water for Turkey…?

It is the Tigris, the Euphrates… rivers which flowed out of Eden…

Bathing is a culture passed down from earlier times which cleanses the body in and out.

The Hamam based on the Roman Baths is by tradition a rectangular domed building with ceiling lattices. These filter light to the interior. Thus no windows for peeping toms! The interior is a completion of circles; round domed rooms, rounded seating area around round basins with a central round massage slab… all in marble and heated by water piped round the system from a furnace below..

Your first thought  on arrival at the airport is probably to buy a bottle of water… even before you are thirsty.

The last thing to do before you go home should be to experience a Turkish Bath.

So for the uninitiated… WHAT IS A TURKISH BATH?

It is the one thing to make you clean Turkish style… Whether you choose to visit one of the traditional Ottoman Hamam’s or a modern spa the all-important human element is the Hamamci… the masseur.



You are welcomed and allotted a safe-box to store your possessions.

You put put on your bathers or strip off and tie a ‘peshtemal’ around you.

In touristic areas bathing is sometimes mixed! The Hamamci supplies you with the peshtemal and ˜takunya’ (raised wooden sandals). You enter the Hamam. Through the steam you spot people sitting, standing, reclining and even some naughty ones throwing water in all directions!… foreigners of course!

Most Hamams are single sex except in touristic areas. 

Seat yourself one of the alcoves beside a marble basin and pour water over your body with the Hamam Tas. This softens your skin in preparation for the Hamamci.

He or she is a fine figure who spends the whole day in nothing but a peshtemal!  

The Hamamci is a connoisseur.

You are an interesting piece of anatomy, which needs to be cleansed and relaxed… no ulterior motive.

The Hamamci standing  at the circular heated marble dais (gobek tasi) signals you to approach. Sign language is  preferable to speech as humidity muffles sound. Water is poured over you… bowl after bowl. You then lie on the warm marble while the Hamamci dons a mitten made of wool or silk and rubs over your body back and forth, rolling off an outer layer of skin. You are surprised at the amount of dead skin there is, but  the area  beneath it is still bronzed! 

You receive a good soaping… a session of bubbles without the bath… as you disappear beneath a mound of olive soap-suds, so relaxed you may nap through the next piece of action… an all-embracing massage as you lie in a reverie of solitary relaxation…

Suddenly it is all over.

You sit up, the soap is washed away, and the Hamamci drowns you in cold water


Towels arrive… two for the body and a turban for the head. All you now need is a glass of Turkish tea… as you relax on an Ottoman.


Cagaloglu Hamam (Istanbul)

Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam (Istanbul)

In Britain the Turkish bath was very popular during the Victorian era… as was Backgammon.

The bath had the addition of a dry room where one perspired, read, gossiped or played cards before moving to the more humid salons. The session would end with a dip into an ice-cold pool.

Pores sealed, one retired to a private cubicle where a  woman with a frilly apron would appear with a menu… poached eggs? A  good way to spend a day after over-indulging the previous evening.


Following the capture of Constantinople the Ottomans continued to use the Byzantine Thermae and by the middle of the 16th century the Sultan and his relatives  were endowing their cities with new public buildings including  baths; many under the direction of the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan(1489-1588) a Christian from Caesarea(Kayseri). The masseurs in the baths were young men recruited from among non-moslem subjects as such work was beneath the dignity of a Turkish Muslim!I

Working examples today are:

Cagalogulu Hamam… separate bathing

Suleymaniye Hamam… separate bathing  

Like its Roman predecessor a typical hamam consisted of three basic, interconnecting rooms; Caldarium, Tepidarium and Frigidarium.

Into the Sultan’s private baths entered only non-gendered eunuchs.

Here the most beautiful of slave girls were groomed… so if one day they caught the eye of the Sultan they would know how to pleasure him … always with the hope of producing a male heir. Among so many young beauties  few ever found the famous bed. The royal Hamam was  a place to meet, preen, eat sweetmeats, gossip and more!

In the public baths there were separate bathing hours for men and women. Turkish women being generally confined indoors, looked forward to their weekly trip, ready with their bath bundles!  

Apart from the pestemal and takunya there was a soap case made of metal with a handle on top, a `kese,`(a soaping web made of plant fibers), three towels, a mirror, her jewel box and her cosmetics kit including a bowl of henna, an eyebrow darkener and a box containing `surma` for lining her eyes, and ‘attar’ – rose perfume in a bottle.

– It is in the Hamam that women select the future daughter-in -law…does she have child-bearing hips etc…?
– I
t is in the Hamam that the bride/groom celebrate and ablute on the eve of their  marriage… a stag or hen party minus alcohol!

– It is here that 40 days after giving birth the bride arrives with her baby for a ritual washing.

 As you can understand water flows SO abundantly in Turkey… they forget to turn off the tap!!!

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