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Visiting the modern Hammam in Ankara and lstanbul
Early Greek and Roman Batths
Mass Bathing in the Balnea and Thermae
The Islamic Hammam is Born
The "'Turkish Bath" Visits Europe and
Private Sweat Bathing Cubicles


A Visit in the Dead of Winter
History of the Nordic Bath
Sauna in Europe
Sauna in Japan
Sauna in America


Joining Running Foot in a Navajo Sweat

A Guest at an Oglala Sun Dance Ceremony
History of Sweat Lodges
Hot Rock Sweat Lodge
Direct Fire Sweat Lodge
Sweating Without a Sweat Lodge
Origin of the Temescal
The Temescal Today
The Sweat Lodge Joins the Modern World


A Boisterous Bath in Leningrad
History of the Great Russian Bath
Bannik, the Spirit of the Bania
The Birth Bania
The Wedding Bania
The Death Bania
Health & the Bania

The Bania after the Russian Revolution
The Spreading Influence of the Russian Steam Bath


Sauna & Health
Heating & Cooling the Inner Body
Positive Effects of Negative Ions
Spirits of the Sweat
Social Sweating








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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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 remained.

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 with fans.

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 do."

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 paradox:

(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."


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 his jaw.

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 away.

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.


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 their faces.

"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."


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.


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.


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 countries.)