The history of the world’s steam-bathing traditions is long, varied, and storied—from the 3rd Millennium B.C.E., Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro of the ancient Indus Valley civilization in Sindh, Pakistan, to sweat lodges and temazcals of the Native Americans, to steam bathing in the onsen (mineral-rich hot springs) and sento (heated water) of Japan, to the simple Russian banya. One of the world’s most famous steam-bathing traditions, the Turkish bath, is in effect a merging of West and East: the Greco-Roman public bathing traditions that the Arabs encountered upon invading Egypt in the 7th century, and the bathing traditions of Asia.
Until indoor plumbing became a commonplace household feature, the typical urban dweller used a public bath. As such, public bathhouses served not only as venues for personal hygiene, but also as places for city folk to socialize. In Islamic culture, public bathhouses, called “hammams,” also fulfilled a religious purpose since the Muslim faith requires ablutions prior to engaging in prayer. Hammams are therefore oftentimes conveniently situated close to mosques.
Unlike the bathhouses of ancient Rome, the focus of which was ambient steam, the focus of the Turkish bath is water. Today’s saunas are the legacy of the Roman system, whereas the hammam (spelled “hamam” in Turkish) remains as it has existed for hundreds of years. (The concept of the Turkish bath as a method of cleansing and relaxation became popular in Western Europe during the Victorian Era, the first Turkish bath opening in Cork County, Ireland in 1856, followed by one in Manchester in 1857, then one in London in 1860. The fundamental difference between the Turkish hammam and the Victorian Turkish bath is that the bather in the Victorian bath would typically take a plunge in a communal pool of cool water after the hot room; whereas in the hammam, baths are to be taken with running, clean water, regarded in Islamic culture as infinitely more hygienic than pools containing stagnant water).
Turkey may not be the best place for a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, but it certainly is the best place for a traditional Turkish bath. And it is best that a gentleman know beforehand what he will encounter upon entering a historic hammam, some of which have been operational since the 15th century, or one of the modern hammams, usually situated in hotels. But old hammam, new hammam, there is a long-established protocol for stripping down and soaping up, Turkish-style.
Many hammams offer two services, each with a corresponding fee: self-service, and traditional service. A gentleman who elects the self-service will have to provide his own soap and towel and will bathe himself. For an authentic “Turkish bath” experience, however, a gentleman should elect the traditional service, a ritual which takes at least 30 minutes and entails, among other things, a full-body wash and massage by an attendant. All the necessary equipment and products for the traditional service are provided by the hammam; but a man who prefers to use special skin products should provide them for the attendant. (Typically at a modern full-service hammam, other bathing/spa styles such as aromatherapy oil massage, reflexology, facial clay masks, Indian head massage, etc., are also available). But regardless of the service selected, patrons are generally allowed to use the facility as long as they wish. Most hammams are open for at least 12 hours, from before daybreak at 6:00 a.m., to 12:00 midnight. [Hammams were originally just for men. Eventually, women were allowed to enter hammams to recover from illness or after childbirth. Then, eventually, because Muslim women were otherwise prohibited from going about in public, women were allowed to socialize with each other at hammams, so much so that a husband who could not afford to regularly send his wife to a hammam could be divorced.] Today, some hammams accommodate both sexes, even if in different sections and with same-sex attendants. But more conservative hammams tend to have different hours for male and female clients).
Upon selecting the traditional service option, the guest is handed a basket or a kit with all the items he will need for his bath. He is then led by his “tellak,” a male masseur-attendant, to a changing room with individual lockers or to a private cubicle called a “camekan,” where he should leave his clothing and all his personal belongings. Lockers and private cubicles containing personal belonging should be locked. Clients keep their locker/cubicle keys with them throughout their stay at the hammam. (Typically, keys are attached to an elasticized band which allows them to be easily slipped onto or off a wrist or an ankle for safekeeping and convenience). Wooden, clog-like, slightly elevated sandals (“nalin”) are provided to keep one’s feet out of any water while walking around in the hammam; and a peştemal, typically made of a striped or Madras-plaid cotton fabric, is used to cover the loin area throughout the ritual (Fabric of a silk-cotton blend or pure silk is also used). Public nudity, even amongst members of the same sex, is discouraged in Turkish culture, so utmost modesty is required at all times. Al-Ghazali, a prominent 11th -century Muslim theologian writes in The Mysteries of Purity, one or the volumes of his multi-volume work, Revival of the Religious Sciences, that nakedness should be avoided: “…he should shield it from the sight of others and second, guard against the touch of others.” If undressing in an open area such as in a public locker room, once a man has undressed down to his underwear, he should cover his loin area with the peştemal prior to slipping off his underpants—the way he would cover himself with a beach towel in order to remove his underpants and don his swimming trunks at a public beach. He should never stand totally nude, even in the locker room, his private parts exposed. And even during the full-body wash, a man is required to wash his own genitals and other private parts—all the while covered by the peştemal. (A woman may go about topless at a hammam, but she always wears a panty under her peştemal. A woman who prefers to cover her breasts wears a brassiere throughout her bath. It is important, therefore, for women to carry an extra change of underwear. And many men, after being thoroughly cleansed hammam-style, would be wise to don fresh underwear).
The first phase of the Turkish bath is the “hararet,” or hot room, the purpose of which is to unwind, relax, and sweat. Each hammam is different. But generally, the hararet is a luxurious, impressive room: paved in marble, walls of marble, and a dome of marble. There is always a göbektaşi (“navel stone”), the raised marble platform in the center of the room, which conceals the heating source. And there are always marble basins (“kuma”) mounted onto the perimeter walls.
After about 15 minutes of sitting, reclining, and flat-out lying on the warm-to-hot göbektaşi, the client is rejoined by his attendant. The client is instructed to position himself towards the perimeter of the göbektaşi, lying flat on his back or on his stomach, then the attendant-masseur soaks the client with warm water then lathers him up. A rigorous, soapy-sudsy, full-body massage ensues. Throughout it all though, the peştemal remains in place.
After the full-body wash and massage is a full-body scrub. And if a gentleman thinks he has been “worked over” with the wash and massage, he has another thing coming: A course, natural-fiber mitt (“kese”) is used by the attendant to scrub the body clean—so much so that the suds will show evidence of soilure and dead skin. Another soaping-up follows the scrub-down.
[If at any point during the wash, massage, or scrub a gentleman becomes visibly sexually aroused, he need not be overly embarrassed. A simple apology without explanation or elaboration will suffice: “Pardon the display.” Tellaks are professionals and are accustomed to such occurrences. Some may even receive the reaction as a compliment. Besides, for a gentleman to try to conceal his arousal by turning onto his stomach upon the slab of marble is ill-advised…. Talk about a rock and a hard place!]
The client is then led to one of the basins. There, the client is invited to sit upon a marble block or stool alongside the basin. The attendant then uses a metal bowl (“tas”), usually made of silver, brass, or copper, to catch cool, running water from a faucet above the basin and rinses the client from head to toe, the peştemal remaining in place throughout the entire process. (In Western-style “Turkish baths,” rather than rinsing with running water at a basin, clients plunge into a cool pool of water).
After the rinse, the attendant typically leaves the hot room, allowing the client to relax for a bit before rejoining the attendant and being led to the “soğukluk,” (the cooling room) where clients sit and collect themselves. The cooling room also typically houses toilets and showers. So the client is provided with a fresh, dry peştemal and clean towels.
In the relax room (sometimes separate from the cooling room), clients get to recline, socialize, and are offered refreshments, cocktails, and light food, especially fresh fruits.
It is customary to tip attendants 10 to 20 percent—in cash—of the total cost of the hammam service.
At the end of the ritual, a gentleman gets dressed, pays his bill, and re-emerges into the outside world, feeling squeaky-clean.
It is said that 16th-century Istanbul boasted 4,536 private and 300 public hammams. But one of the most enduring is the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, built in 1555. It was operational as a hammam until 1910, then became a prison, then a carpet bazaar. It is again, today, a luxurious hammam. And a gentleman visiting Istanbul should experience its splendors.