History of the Steam Bath: A Look at the Hammam

If you want to trace the history of the steam bath, your research will undoubtedly lead you to the hammam, or the Turkish bath. The hammam — the Middle Eastern variant of the steam bath and “a wet relative of the sauna,” according to SpaFinder.com — is one of the oldest surviving bath traditions in the world.

Bathing in a hammam begins with relaxation in a room heated by a continuous flow of hot dry air, which allows the bather to perspire freely. He or she may then move to an even hotter room before washing in cold water. After performing a full body wash and receiving a massage, the bather finally retires to a “cold room” for a period of relaxation.

Origins

Although the first hammams originated in Arabia, the idea of a hot bath can be traced back to the days of the Roman empire. The Romans and the Greeks placed a high value on washing. They created an actual bathing culture, where citizens would make weekly visits to local bathhouses to cleanse themselves. These bathhouses were large centralized bathing complexes where thousands of citizens could visit with each other and catch up on the latest news while they completed their daily bathing routine. As the Roman empire expanded to other parts of the world, from Europe to North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, so did their bathing rituals.

Even though bath culture was a key part of Roman life, the Ottoman empire in Turkey popularized the tradition by making hammams available to people of all statuses. The Ottomans were inspired by their religion and followed their own rules for cleanliness. They believed bathing was a purification ritual that should be completed before prayer. Where the Romans preferred one large central bath, the Turks preferred smaller bathhouses scattered around the city. This is why many hammams can be found next to mosques to this day.

Roman Baths vs. Turkish Baths

Roman baths generally featured four main areas: 1) a reception room, or apodyterium, 2) a hot room called a caldarium, 4) a warm room, or tepidarium, and 4) a cold room known as a frigidarium. Bathers moved through these rooms, where temperature changes stimulated the flow of blood and encouraged the body to sweat out impurities.

The Turks perceived the Roman tradition of plunging into a cold water pool as bathing in filth, so they preferred to clean themselves with bowls of running water. The Turkish tradition also required that the cleansing ritual be finished in a “cold room” as a means of recovery, whereas the Romans used it before bathing as a means of preparation. Hammams were generally single-sex, with men and women having separate bathhouses or bathing times.

Western Variations

A variation on the hammam as a means of cleansing and relaxation emerged during the Victorian era, and eventually spread through the British Empire and Western Europe. The main difference between a Victorian Turkish bath and an Islamic hammam is the air. The hot air in the Victorian Turkish bath is dry. Whereas the air is often steamy in an Islamic hammam. As was the Roman custom, a bather in a Victorian Turkish bath will often take a plunge in a cold pool after the hot rooms. The Islamic hammam usually does not have a pool unless the water is flowing from a spring. In the Islamic hammams, the bathers splash themselves with cold water.

Here are a few of the most famous hammams in Turkey:

The Cemberlitas Hammam

The Cemberlitas Hammam was built by Nurbanu Sultan (the mother of Sultan Murad III) in 1584. This elegant structure shows that it is the work of Mimar Sinan. The six-line inscription at the entrance of the bathhouse has remained with the original version. About best Istanbul hammams

The Cagaloglu Hammam

Built in 1741 by Sultan I. Mahmoud with the aim of bringing in revenue to Hagia Sophia Mosque, the Cagaloglu Hammam is located in the Sultanahmet district and is one of the biggest Turkish Hammams in Istanbul. All the architectural beauty of the structure has been preserved. Read about best Istanbul hammams

The Suleymaniye Hammam

The Suleymaniye Hammam was built in 1577 by Mimar Sinan, together with The Suleymaniye Kulliye (a complex of buildings adjacent to a mosque).

Obviously, times have changed since the golden era of hammams. Thanks to modern in-house plumbing and the convenience of the home bathroom (and even the invention of the modern steam shower at home, thanks to ThermaSol’s very own David Altman in 1958), has lessened the need for public bathhouses today. Still, recounting the cross-cultural history of hammams helps us remember the key role that a good sweat has on our overall health and sense of wellness.

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