The Hamam Turkish Bath

The hammam (Arabic hamam, Turkish hamam) 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.


Hamam is from a root ḥmm with a general meaning of "heat", from which many words referring to "hot spring", "fever" etc. According to Ibn Sidah ḥammām is derived from al-ḥamīm "the vehemence of summer heat" (Lane).

The word ḥammām simply means "bathroom" or "toilet" in many dialects of vernacular Arabic.


Inside a modern hammamThe 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 Çemberlitas Hammam in Istanbul, built in 1584.

A typical hammam consists of three interconnected basic rooms similar to its Roman ancestors: the sicaklik (or hararet -caldarium) which is the hot room, the warm room (tepidarium) which is the intermediate room and the sogukluk which is the cool room.

The sicaklik 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 sogukluk 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 Jewish women.

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 pestemal (a special cloth of silk and/or cotton, to cover the body, like pareos), nalin (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.

The reference book about hammams, oriental public baths, Turkish baths from Morocco to Iran : "HAMMAMS" by Pascal Meunier (Dakota publishing Paris 2005).

Tellak (Staff)

Detail of an illustration from the Hubanname (The Book of the Handsome Ones), an eighteenth century homoerotic work by the Turkish poet Fazyl bin Tahir Enderuni.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 Dilküsâ, eighteenth century work by Dervish, Ismail Agha; Ottoman archives, Süleymaniye, 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, 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. When the latter was kidnapped by the men of another regiment and given over to the use of their commander, a days-long battle between the two janissary regiments ensued, which was brought to an end only when the Sultan ordered the unfortunate tellak hanged[citation needed].

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 oglani 'bath boy' is still used as a euphemism for a homosexual.

Introduction of Turkish baths to Europe

Turkish baths were introduced to the British Isles by David Urquhart, diplomat and sometime Member of Parliament for Stafford, who for political and personal reasons wished to popularize Turkish culture. In 1850 he had written The Pillars of Hercules, a book about his travels in Spain and Morocco in 1848, in which he described the system of dry hot-air baths which had been in use there, and in the Ottoman Empire, very little changed from those which had been so popular in Roman times.

In 1856, Richard Barter, having read Urquhart's book and worked on the construction of a bath with him, opened the first modern Turkish bath in the United Kingdom at St Ann's Hydropathic Establishment near Blarney, County Cork, Ireland. The following year, the first Turkish bath to be built in England since Roman times was opened in Manchester, and the idea spread rapidly through the north of England. It reached London in July 1860 when Roger Evans, a member of one of Urquhart's Foreign Affairs Committees, opened a Turkish bath at 5 Bell Street, near Marble Arch.

The Bowery "Ten Cent Turkish Bath" New York C.1884During the following 150 years, well over 600 baths opened in Britain, while similar Turkish baths opened in cities in other parts of the then British Empire. Dr. John Le Gay Brereton, who had given medical advice to bathers in a Foreign Affairs Committee-owned Turkish bath in Bradford, travelled to Sydney, Australia, and opened a Turkish bath there in Spring Street in 1859, even before the bath had reached London. Canada had one by 1869, and the first one in New Zealand was opened in 1874. Urquhart's influence was felt even outside the Empire when, in 1863, Dr. Charles Shepard opened the first Turkish bath in the United States at 63 Columbia Street, Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn.

Today there are just over twenty Turkish baths remaining open in the British Isles, although hot-air baths still thrive in the form of Russian steam baths and the Finnish sauna.

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