The Islamic Hammam is Born
©2011 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
The Cagaloglu hammam, built in the 1500s , is the oldest functioning
hammam in Istanbul. This 19th century drawing shows the harara
(hot room) where the bather sweats, washes and is masssaged. Illustration
from Sweat, copyright Mikkel Aaland
When the splendor of the Roman Empire receded into the boot of
Italy, the architectual remains of the Greek baths and the balnea
inspired the smaller and more modest hammams of Islam. However,
not until Muhammed himself enthusiastically recommended sweat
baths around 60O AD did the Islamic hammam begin to proliferate.
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SPREADER OF WARMTH
Muhammad believed that the heat of the hammam (which in Arabic
means "spreader of warmth") enhanced fertility, and the followers
of the faith should multiply. Until the hammam caught Muhammed's
fancy, the Arabs used only cold water and never bathed in tubs,
which was considered as bathing in one's own filth. But when the
conquering Arabs encountered Roman and Greek baths in Syria, holy
men immediately adopted the pleasure of hot air bathing (perhaps
to compensate for the joys of alcohol forbidden by their faith).
When the Arabs captured Alexandria in 642, they reportedly heated
the Roman baths for six straight months with pergaments and papyri
from the fabulous Ptolemaic Library. As many as 700,000 works
may have been burned.
As the Arabs picked up foreign bathing habits, they were quick
to tailor them to their own ways. The hammam gained religious
significance and became an annex to the mosque, used to comply
with the Islamic laws of hygiene and purification. Physical and
intellectual development was deemphasized, and only the massage
Once the delight of the warm water sunk in, the cold water bath
or shower after sweating no longer appealed to the Arabs. The
hammam developed into a quiet retreat--an atmosphere of half-light,
quiescence and seclusion. Architectually, vaulted ceilings shrank
as the buildings became smaller and modest. While the Romans built
enormous central baths, the Arabs preferred several small baths
throughout their cities, comparable to the Roman balnea. They
still followed a progression through a series of hot rooms as
in the thermae, but with different emphasis.
In the hammam the Roman tepidarium dwindled to a mere passageway
leading from dressing room to harara (hot room) where, unlike
the Roman caldarium, special massages were administered. A small
steam room adjoining the harara replaced the laconicum. While
the Roman bather finished with a stay in the library or study,
the hammam bather ends where he or she began, lounging on couches
in the rest hall while servants bring drinks and cool the bather
The hypocaust heating systems remained, but in some regions Arabs
followed the Roman example of utilizing heat from their many hot
springs. These hammams, called kaplica or ilica, have no sweat
platform in the center of the hottest room. Instead, a pool of
natural hot water heats the hammam. Because the water bubbled
and flowed, the Arabs could take a dip in those pools without
bathing in their own filth. (Bursa has some of the oldest kaplica
or ilicas in all of the Middle East.)
The oldest hammams were those of the Camayyad caliphs who subscribed
to a semi-Bedouin way of life. They despised the regularity of
towns and preferred nomadic life in the desert. Consequently,
the first hammams were erected outside the cities, virtually in
the wilderness. One of the oldest, the Kusair'Aman, rises unexpectedly
from the flat barren plain near the Dead Sea.
As the lslamic faith spread, so did the hammam, which accounts
for many still standing in lran, Asia Minor, and across North
Africa from Egypt to Morocco. Before the Arabs were repelled by
rebellious subjects, there were hammams in Moorish Spain and high
up the Danube River. Conquered temples, churches and baths were
often converted into hammams--as the Islamic religion itself accomodated
Jews and Christians, the hammam was flexible.
Like the Roman baths, the hammam became a place to socialize.
"Your town is only a perfect town when there is a bath in it,"
said Abu Sir, an early Arab historian. To promote the local hammam,
entrance fees were so low everyone could enjoy them. "I leave
it to the bather," said a caliph in A Thousand and One Nights,
"to pay according to his rank." ln an effort to keep tellaks honest,
they were given the privilege of being tax exempt.
The baths were one of the few places in Islam open to everyone
from early morning to late night, and sometimes longer. One of
the attractions was the barber. He shaved faces, cut hair, let
blood, and like the tellak, massaged and washed bodies. Because
the barber was in such close contact with bathers, they were not
allowed to eat garlic. An important task of the barber was scrubbing
the soles of bathers' feet to remove callouses. It was believed
that de-calloused feet not only allowed bad vapors to escape but
also drove away migraine headaches. When the bather stood up,
fatigue and other undesirables flowed down and out through the
feet. Barbers, privy to town and travel talk, were the hub of
news and gossip.
Aside from treating oneself to the pleasure of bathing and chat,
people went to the hammam for religious cleansing. Before one
would don new clothes, after a long journey, a convalescence,
or release from prison--these were good reasons to clean up and
check in with Allah.
The hammam was so much a part of town social 1ife that even the
wealthy, who usually owned private baths, frequented them. They
chose public bathing to show the town they were clean. Although
the baths were usually built under the auspices of church or government,
they were often constructed by wealthy individuals as well. To
build a hammam was a venture that pleased Allah as well as the
people; so the wealthy were inclined to heed the advise of Yusuf
B. 'Abdalhadi, an early Arab writer, who said, "Whoever has commited
many sins should build a bath (as penance.)"
The owner of a bath would occasionally turn the proceeds over
to schools, mosques or to other hammam ventures. When a new bath
was opened, a herald proclaimed the news that the bath would be
free to everyone for the first three days.
Order and cleanliness were essential to the hammams, so certain
customs, enforced by law, were established. The police inspector
was given the task of seeing that the baths were washed frequently,
which entailed scrubbing the stone surfaces with a hard instrument
to remove dirt and slippery traces of soap. The inspector also
checked the quality of the water. Aside from cleaning the place,
the attendants burned incense twice a day for purification. (In
Turkey they use an incense called Gunnuk made from pine sap.)
The hammam was required to be fully prepared before dawn so people
could bathe before morning prayer.
Massage attendants rubbed their hands with pomegranate peel to
harden them and give them a pleasant scent. Attendants also made
sure no beans or peas were eaten in the hammam, no lepers were
allowed inside, and anyone revealing a peek at his private parts
was ejected. Not only was the hammam pleasurable, but it also
brought luck as this old adage claims: "Whoever goes to the bath
on forty consecutive Wednesdays will succeed at anything they
To give bathing a more pious note, some works recommend that the
bather consider the fires of hell while bathing. With its darkness
and heat, the bath is a vision of hell, it was said, and it should
not always be the visage of a joyous reality. A conversation among
a vizier, a bath overseer and his two sons on the 132nd night
of A Thousand and One Nights reveals the hammam's heaven-and-hell
(The vizier says to the overseer) "Oh my lord! verily the bath
is the Paradise of this world."
(The overseer replies,) "Allah vouchsafe to thee such Paradise
and health to thy sons and guard them from the evil eye! Do you
remember aught that the eloquent have said in praise of the bath?"
(To which the first son of the overseer Taj al-Mulak replies)
"I will repeat for thee a pair of couplets;" and he recited,"The
life of the bath is the joy of a man's life, Save that time is
short for us there to bide. A Heaven where irksome it were to
stay; A Hell delightful at entering tide."
(When he finished his recital the second son, Aziz, says) "And
I also remember two couplets in praise of the bath."
(To which the overseer says) "Let me hear them."
(So Aziz repeated the following lines): "A house where flowers
from stones of granite grow, Seen at its best when hot with living
love: Thou deem'st it Hell but here, forsooth, is Heaven, And
some like suns and moons within it show."
GINN, THE SPIRIT OF THE HAMMAM
According to lslamic lore, the Ginn, a spirit who dwells in the
water of springs and in the darkness of caves finds the damp darkness
of the hammam ideal. And, what does one do when one encounters
the Ginn? Etiquette is provided in the Figh (lslamic law). One
should speak the Balmala, which is an invocation that means "ln
the name of Allah." The Ginn should leave after hearing these
words; but, if he doesn't, one is urged to postpone one's visit,
otherwise the Ginn might slap the visitor in the face with a noise,
which will either render the visitor's voice useless or dislocate
Of course, not all Ginns were malicious or even mischievious.
If you were to ask a tellak about his particular hammam spirit,
there is a chance that he might nonchalantly introduce you to
the Ginn: "This is our Ginn who shows himself frequently and recites
poetry as well."
In some areas, the devil was reputed to use the hammam as his
house. lf one was not interested in meeting the devil, one would
not bathe between the last two prayers of the day. That was the
time when the devil and friends enjoyed their baths. lf you found
yourself in the hammam during the devil's turn, you must open
the encounter with an Adan (a recital from a religious text).
That should send the devil running and, according to lore, farting
Often baths were protected from unfriendly spirits by placing
an apotrapaic mark on the door. Moslems and Christians of Cairo
were known to paint crosses on the doors.
WOMEN AND THE HAMMAM
When Muhammed first advocated the use of the hammam for religious
and recreational purposes, women were forbidden. But as hygienic
benefits became apparent, "The Word" was reinterpreted and women
were permitted after an illness or after they had given birth.
Eventually, Arab men begrudgingly opened the pleasures of the
hammam to women who, before then, had virtually no other opportunity
to socialize with anyone outside the home. It wasn't long before
the "privilege" became a "right."
The hammam became such an important part in the lives of Moslem
women that if a husband were to deny his wife her visits to the
hammam, she had grounds for divorce. Mothers found the opportunity
to inspect prospective brides for their sons in the hammam, where
no physical flaws or social foibles could escape notice. In fact,
it was acceptable for a mother to kiss a possible daughter-in-law
to learn whether or not she had bad breath.
In 1897 Mrs. Bernhard Stein, writing for the Neue Freie Press,
commented about the hammam's significance for the Turkish women:
"The hammam recompenses the Turkish women for all the amusements
with which European women are indulged: theatres, dances, travelling.
It is the only real variety in their dream-like lives. And life
is indeed colourful and joyful in these miraculously beautiful
halls walled in marble, where the echo repeats every word thrice.
There the Turkish women sit, unveiled, in their patterned robes,
smoking, gossiping, laughing, suckling their children or painting
"On the whole there is no better place for getting to know the
happy inactivity of the Turkish woman's life. Bathing articles
are gathered together early in the morning and there are many
of them--for a visit to the bath takes all day, or at least many
hours. The whole menage is dragged along: rugs and mattresses
in huge packages, shirts and trousers for the children--swaddling
clothes are not used here, then the women's own linen. Finally,
but not the least in either quantity or quality, many kinds of
food for lunch and dinner: cold eggs, roast mutton and dolma,
the favourite dish of the East--chipped meat with rice and onion
folded in a vine leaf--and finally, sheep cheese and frult."
CHRISTIANS, JEWS, AND THE HAMMAM
When Christians and Jews were first allowed to enter the baths,
they were required by Islamic decree to wear either a wooden cross
(for the Christians) or a calf-head emblem (for the Jews), thereby
setting them apart from the Moslems. In some areas, Jews and Christians
wore bells to distinguish themselves. The notion of constructing
separate baths was considered, designating them appropriately
with crosses and flower petals painted on the doors. However,
very few separate Christian or Jewish bath houses were ever built.
THE HAMMAM'S MEDICINAL PROPERTIES
As for the hammam's medicinal properties, "The bath cured small
pox and other hidden illnesses," wrote the caliph al'Qu'imin in
1O32. After centuries of healing, the hammam has picked up the
nickname, "silent doctor," from Moslems.
THE DECLINE OF THE HAMMAM
In the mid 1800s, the hammams began losing their wealthy patrons
who were feeling some of the effects of the Industrial Revolution
in the West. Although the bathroom-with-shower had not reached
the Near East, only the poorer classes were using the bath. The
rich began withdrawing their support from the baths, stripping
them of their ornaments, carpets, mosaics, and leaving them to
lapse into decay. (Photos)
I spoke with Dogan Kuban, director of the Istanbul Technological
University, in 1974. "Hammams are dying out. They are too expensive
to run. Water is costly to heat, repairs are numerous, and maintenance
costs keep going up." However, not all hammam experts agree with
Kuban. Sabiha Tansug, an Istanbul woman who writes and lectures
about the hammam at home and abroad, believes the Islamic bath
is too much a part of Moslem religion to fade so easily. "We have
to appreciate and study it for its own value, not as an interchangeable
section, but as an indispensible detail of daily life."
Is the hammam soon to join extinct Greek and Roman baths? If people
like Sabiha Tansug represent incipient signs of nationalism or
a true attachment to cultural heritage, there is good chance the
hammam may regain its historic popularity.
(Autors note: I'd welcome any up-to-date information anyone might
have on the current state of the hammam in Turkey and other middle-eastern
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