The Turkish bath or hamam is an atmospheric world
all its own in the midst of the modern bustling city. Everyone who sets foot in here
surrenders to the water in a voluntary form of captivity, for the process of purification
of not just the body but also the soul.
Upon entering the door you find yourself in the camekan, a hall lined with changing
cubicles. In an old-fashioned hamam this is the most impressive part, with a drinking
fountain in the centre or sometimes a marble pool with a water jet. Before your encounter
with water can start you must undress in one of the cubicles and wrap your body in a
cotton or silk bathing cloth known as a pestimal. Then you are ready to go into the bath,
which is reached through an antechamber called the soğukluk where there is a room for
shaving, lavatories and a tea stall selling beverages.
When the door to the bath proper, known as the sıcaklık or harrare, opens you find
yourself in a high room filled with the sound of splashing water, the scent of soap, and
wafting steam through which daily concerns and worries cannot penetrate. In the gentle
moist heat your body relaxes, and your nerves are soothed. You sit down at one of the
marble wash basins which line the walls, and adjusting the temperature of the water to a
delicious warmth, dip the copper bathing bowl into the basin and tip the water over your
head and body. Waves of relaxation seem to pour right through you as the water ripples
From the score or more tiny circular glass lights
in the dome an enchanted luminous light filters down into the bath. The long narrow rays
pierce through the dim heights of the dome and play all day long on the stone platform
known as the göbek taşı in the centre of the room.
When you have finished washing stretch out on this platform, which is heated from
beneath. Soon the heat will have opened the pores in your skin, and the bath attendant
(known as a natır in a womens bath and a tellak in the male establishment) will come
along carrying a bath glove made of coarse raw silk. Entrust your body to their skilled
hands as they vigorously rub away the layer of dead skin, then soap and rinse you well. If
asked they will go on to give you a massage. After being kneaded from top to toe on top of
the relaxing effect of all that hot water you naturally begin to feel delightfully sleepy.
The Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo describes this as a state of unimaginable bliss, and
says that when he came out of the hamam his body which had been taken to pieces and put
together again, soaped from head to foot, rinsed, dried, and relieved of tension felt
like wearing a new suit of clothes.
served as health centres among the ancient Greeks and have been an important part of daily
life in Istanbul since Roman and Byzantine times. Under the Romans, Byzantines baths were
more than places to wash, but social clubs where people met their friends and conversed or
argued over politics. Like hippodromes and theatres they were places where people gathered
to enjoy themselves. This social aspect of the bath continued into Ottoman times, when
large numbers of hamams were constructed all over the empire. Now people gathered together
either in the Turkish bath or in coffee houses.
The ritual of the weekly expedition to the bath house involved elaborate preparations.
Only the rich could afford the luxury of a private hamam supplied with hot running water
attached to their homes, so the majority of families went to the public baths. For women,
in particular, whose lives were confined to their homes, families, visits to neighbours
and shopping, a day spent at the bath was an entertaining occasion to be looked forward to
from week to week. The women and children of the family, perhaps with their friends or
neighbours, set out early in the morning for the neighbourhood bath carrying their bundles
of clean clothes and a picnic of stuffed vegetables, pickles, savoury pastries and şerbet. After spending a leisurely morning washing, this delicious
food prepared the previous day was spread out in the antechamber. The remainder of the day
would be spent dressing the hair, napping and chatting, and then towards sundown the party
would make its way home.
The seclusion of women which was
practised so strictly in Ottoman towns and cities was reflected in the architecture of the
hamam. Naturally it was unthinkable that men and women should bathe together, so either
baths catered entirely for one of the sexes, or large double baths known as çifte hamam
were built with separate sections for men and women. The mens section of the latter had
a large ornate entrance opening onto the main street, while the womens section had a
plain one opening modestly onto a side street.
The 17th century Turkish traveller and writer Evliya
Çelebi recorded that there were 151 hamams in Istanbul. A bath house was a lucrative
source of income, which may explain why so many were built. Their consumption of water and
fire wood for the furnace rose to such heights that in the 18th century the government
took measures to restrict their numbers.
Let us take a brief look at some of the most notable of Istanbuls Turkish baths. The
oldest in the city is the Irgat Hamam built during the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror
(1451-1481), while the only hamam to have been built on the foundations of an earlier
Byzantine bath is Yıldız Dede Hamam in Bahçekapı. One of the most magnificent of all
hamams is the 16th century Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamam situated between Haghia Sophia and
Sultan Ahmed Mosque. This hamam is no longer in use, instead housing a carpet shop.
Excavations nearby revealed the remains of the famous Byzantine Zeuksippos Bath.
Just past the great underground cistern known as Yerebatan Sarayı is
Cağaloğlu Hamam, whose baroque architecture and bath tours with belly dancing and
dinner inclusive have made it a popular tourist attraction. This hamam was built in 1741,
the last to be built before the construction of large hamams was prohibited in 1768.
Çemberlitaş Hamam on Divanyolu was built by the celebrated Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in 1584 and is famous for its interior decoration. Part
of the camekan of the womens section of this hamam was knocked down to make way for a
road during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz (1860-1876). A hamam of historic importance
which is still in use today is Galatasaray Hamam in Beyoğlu. This hamam was constructed
in 1715 for men only, although later on a small womens section was added. It is also
unique as the only hamam in Istanbul to have been awarded a certificate by the Ministry of
Tourism. However, it is not unique in having a website. You may be as surprised as I was
to learn that most of these large hamams are on the Internet.
The dizzying speed of modern life has made the leisurely hamam bath a luxury few can
spare time for today. But there are still some Turkish people who go regularly for a real
bath. Next time you are in Istanbul and want to feel that lightness of being which only a
Turkish bath can impart, then take time out from sightseeing for a few hours and head for
the nearest hamam.
- Temples to the body
by Emel Çelebi,