These days everyone leads a busy life. Schedules are packed with work and other engagements and we run from here to there. Even more reason, why we now and then need to step back from our daily hustle and bustle and take a time-out to relax. A visit to the hamam, the Turkish Bath, is one of the ultimate de-stressors.
The hamam is a unique place to recover from all the chaos of life. The hamam is serenely peaceful. You’re washed, scrubbed, bathed in olive soap and soothingly massaged from head to toe, after which you feel like you’ve been reborn. Not only is it a great pick-me-up for your body, it works wonders for your mind.
With the current, growing popularity of spa centres, the hamam tradition, which is actually the precursor of all modern-day wellness resorts, is also experiencing a revival.
The Turkish hamam tradition is centuries old. In Islamic countries, bathing and respect for water has always been a regular part of day-to-day life. People do not go to the mosque without first having cleansed themselves thoroughly. It was common for the original baths to be located in an annex to the mosque. Subsequently more luxurious complexes were built, using lots of marble and mosaics.
When the Turks arrived in Anatolia, they came into contact with the bathing traditions of the Romans and the Greeks. Combining these with their own variation, the modern-day hamam was born.
The hamam gradually became more popular in the Islamic world, not only as somewhere to cleanse the body, but as a social venue. Men and women, kept strictly segregated, would visit the hamam to make friends, do business, exchange gossip or simply chat about daily events. The hamam became a place where peace and relaxation were the focus.
For women in particular, it was the ideal place to meet without being disturbed by men. Originally women were not allowed in the hamam. They could only go there after an illness or having given birth. As the hygiene benefits became better understood, they were also allowed into the warm baths. From that point on the baths became an essential part of the lives of women. It’s even said that there was a time when a woman could ask for a divorce on the grounds that her husband forbade her from visiting the baths. Mothers also used the baths in their search for potential brides for their sons, as they could see at once how shapely a woman’s figure was!
The hamam ritual
In a traditional hamam, men and women are strictly segregrated. Often there are separate opening times for men and women. However, in tourist baths men and women are often allowed in together.
A traditional hamam has three areas: a changing room, the cold room and the hot room (hararet). The changing room is where you are provided with a coloured towel (pestemal). Men wear this around the waist and women wear it under their arms.
Swimwear, for example a bikini, is normally worn during a treatment in the tourist baths.
You’re also provided with flip-flops (nalin) to be worn in the different rooms.
In the cold room, you wash yourself with water and olive soap, before moving on to the hararet. Here you lie on a large slab of marble and get scrubbed down by the tellak (masseur). The scrubbing session removes dead skin cells, resulting in soft skin. Between scrubbings you’re rinsed off with lukewarm to warm water. The soap ritual is a special experience of its own. The soap is contained in a large cotton bag which the tellak squeezes out and rubs in, until you are covered in a white, foamy lather. The treatment concludes once you have been rinsed clean. Back in the changing room, large hand towels are wrapped under your arms and around your head and you’re allowed to warm up again. This is followed by a relaxing oil massage. The whole ritual takes about an hour and a half.
You leave the bathhouse feeling as if you have been reborn and ready to face the world once more.
Do’s and Don’ts in the Hamam
Wear underwear or swimwear
In contrast to European saunas, you are not required to strip entirely in the hamam. Everyone either wears the hamam towel provided in such a way that one’s bottom, genital area and breasts are covered or, in the more touristy hamams, it is common to wear swimwear.
Flip-flops are required to be worn for hygiene reasons. The hot room floor is also usually very slippery, so it is safer to wear flip-flops and avoid slipping.
Visit the baths before sunbathing. The treatment cleanses your skin thoroughly and you will tan more quickly. You will also burn less quickly.
Do not visit if you have sunburn
Avoid the hamam entirely if you have bad sunburn, as the treatment can be very painful, especially the scrub session.
Avoid moving round too much
The temperature in the hot room can reach 50 degrees Celsius. Consequently you should avoid excessive movement, instead trying to keep still and relax.
It is better to avoid drinking alcohol before visiting the hamam. See above: the temperature can reach 50 degrees and this does not mix well with alcohol.