Turkish Baths (Hammams)

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Hamman in Cairo

Hammans (Turkish baths, hamam) and public baths are a vestige of Ottoman bath culture. They are common in Arab countries because a premium is put on cleanliness and running water in homes has traditionally been in short supply. Hammams traditionally have consisted of sunken tubs and marble platforms surrounded by glazed tiles, all placed in rooms without windows, which trapped heat and moisture from a Turkish steam bath. Large hamans traditionally have had a central tub with marble steps. Some have enclosed private tubs. The steam is relaxing and hot but not as hot as a sauna. Nice hammams have domes above the tubs and marble slabs. The domes often have small holes in them through which beams of light strike the bather.

Hammams are found in most Muslim countries. Islam emphasizes cleanliness and washing, particularly before prayer. But on top of their original religious function they were also places for people to relax and socialize. “It is not just about bathing. It is a purification process, a ritual process,” Tevfik Ilter, an architect involved in the restoration of old hammams in Istanbul, told Reuters. [Source: Alexandra Hudson, Ece Toksabay, Reuters, June 1, 2011]

Mary Ellen Monahan wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The Turkish hamam, descendant of the baths of ancient Rome and Byzantium, is the site of one of the world's great bathing rituals — a place not just to get clean (Islam, like many religions, links physical and spiritual purity) but also to recharge and relax, alone or with friends. Once upon a time, the Ottoman Empire's thousands of hamams marked important ceremonies such as births and weddings. These days, it's more of a social ritual than a necessity with the spread of indoor plumbing in the last century.” [Source: Mary Ellen Monahan, Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2013]

There are hammams for both men and women. Some Turkish baths have separate baths for men and women. Others have certain hours of the day when each sex is admitted. Women generally have the afternoons and the men the evenings. They were traditionally places where people gathered to socialize, gossip and exchange news.

Hamman means "spreader of warmth." The custom of taking Turkish-style baths goes back centuries before the Ottoman Turks. Not as elaborate as their Roman counterparts, medieval hammans featured a series of rooms heated at different temperatures. Cleanliness was prized but was a luxury in the hot climates. A link was made between cleanliness, purity and spirituality. It is said that Crusaders who enjoyed hammams in the Holy Land brought the custom back to Europe.

Books: “4.11, Hilal al-Sabi’: Estimating the Number of Bathhouses in Baghdad." In Islamic Art and Visual Culture: An Anthology of Sources, edited by D. Fairchild Ruggles, pp. 91–92.. Malden, Mass." Wiley-Blackwell, 2011; Ellis, Marianne and Jennifer Wearden Ottoman Embroidery. London: V&A Publications, 2001; Meunier, Pascal, May Telmissany, and Eve Gandossi The Last Hammams of Cairo: A Disappearing Bathhouse Culture.. Cairo: American University, 2009; Peterson, Andrew “Hammam." In Dictionary of Islamic Architecture, pp. 107–8.. London: Routledge, 1996; Tohme, Lara “Out of Antiquity: Umayyad Baths in Context." Ph.D. diss., MIT. :, 2005. \^/

Websites and Resources: Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? africa.upenn.edu ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Arab Cultural Awareness fas.org/irp/agency/army ; Arab Cultural Center arabculturalcenter.org ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence ; Arab American Institute aaiusa.org/arts-and-culture ; Introduction to the Arabic Language al-bab.com/arabic-language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia

History of the Hammam

Elizabeth Williams of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The hammam has a long history in the Mediterranean, which can be traced to Roman thermae. Baths were common throughout the Roman empire in a geographic range stretching from Europe to North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Roman baths generally featured a reception room, or apodyterium, which led to a hot room called a caldarium, a warm room, or tepidarium, and a cold room known as a frigidarium. Visitors moved through these rooms, where temperature changes stimulated the flow of blood and encouraged the body to sweat out impurities. Some baths included areas where bathers could exercise. [Source: Elizabeth Williams, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“While the tradition of public baths popularized under the Romans slowly died out in the West, it continued over many centuries in the eastern Mediterranean. Byzantine baths in the region kept many of the same traditions of the earlier Roman baths, including trends in decoration such as intricate mosaic floors. The Umayyad caliphs (661–750) built particularly lavish private baths as an essential component of their imperial palaces, or qusur. The eighth-century complex Qusayr ‘Amra in Jordan is perhaps the best known of these. The bath's walls are covered with elaborate paintings, including scenes showing nude women bathing. However, Umayyad baths varied somewhat from their predecessors in that the cold room was removed, reception rooms were larger, bath chambers smaller, and layouts more intricate. Scholars posit that imperial Umayyad baths were settings for courtly entertainment, and indeed period literature recounts stories of drinking parties held at the qusur."^/

“By the medieval period, public baths had become an important part of community life, and the quality and number of baths counted among any city's most admired attributes. Medieval authors mention hammams alongside mosques, madrasas (schools), and gardens in their descriptions of beautiful and prosperous cities. Hilal al-Sabi' (969–1056), for example, estimated that Baghdad at its height had 60,000 bathhouses. While al- Sabi' may have exaggerated, the hyperbole does effectively relay the grandeur of the Abbasid capital. Although hammams throughout the Middle East resembled each other in terms of their basic outlines, the articulation of the bath's structure and its decoration were often regionally specific. . \^/

“Western visitors, too, were fascinated by hammams. Orientalist painters traveling in the Middle East in the nineteenth century relished depictions of scintillating scenes inside bathhouses, using the setting as an excuse for painting nude bodies and exotic architectural details." \^/

Turkish Bath Culture

A Turkish lady and her slave

In the old days, when many houses lacked plumbing, hammams provided a place for people to wash themselves and socialize. Cleanliness is also highly valued in Muslim cultures. Women particularly liked them because it gave them a chance to get out of the house. In the Ottoman era, women often made matchmaking decisions and negotiated dowry fees in the baths. It was said that a man who failed to provide his wife with enough bath money risked being sued for divorce. Rich women were accompanied by attendants and slaves and used towels embroidered with golden thread and mother of pearl.

Bath culture is nothing new. The ancient Greeks and especially the Romans had a sophisticated bath culture. The Japanese love going to hot springs today. The Ottoman Turks introduced their bath culture to much of their empire. Hammams are found all over the Middle East and the Balkans. Now this culture is dying. Many Turks find it easier to take a shower and dislike the steam and heat. Many hammams are visited mostly by tourists. Hammam culture is most alive in rural areas where many baths have televisions that bathers cam watch while they are relaxing.

Elizabeth Williams of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Although today we think of bathing as a private activity, the public bath, or hammam, was a vital social institution in any Middle Eastern city for centuries before the advent of modern plumbing. Hammams played a central role in promoting hygiene and public health, but they also served as meeting places where people could relax and socialize. [Source:Elizabeth Williams, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Turkish Bath Procedure

When you enter a hammam you generally pay a fee and are given a towel. In the dressing room you take off your clothes and put you belongings in a locker and put on a robe or wrap a towel around your waist and enter the hot room. Here you wash yourself off with soap—using water poured into a bowl from a faucet—and relax in a pool of hot water, hurling water on yourself or relaxing or taking a nap on a large heated marble slab.

When your muscles are good and loose you lay down on a large heated stone called a “göbe tasi “for the massage. The massage is often accompanied by a scrubbing with soup and water which can be done before, during or after a massage. Many people are scrubbed when they enter the hot room rather than washing themselves. When that is finished you are wrapped in towels from head to foot in towels and taken to the cold room and served a hot glass cup of tea in a private room where you can stretch out and relax.

In many baths men and women are expected to keep their crotches covered with a towel or in the case of women their panties. As rule men and women are massaged by members of their own sex and the masseuses don’t go near the private parts. Because so few Turkish women visit the baths these days, female masseuses are often in short supply. Sexual activity has no place in a hammam. I some touristy areas, though, a foreign man and woman are sometimes allowed to bath together in a private room.

Hammam Bathing Customs and Accessories

Elizabeth Williams of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Although most studies of hammams focus on their architecture and decoration, no less important were the objects used in the bath. Hammams were generally single-sex, with men and women having separate bathhouses or bathing times. Some depictions of women, including a monumental torso from Qasr al-Mshatta dating to the Umayyad period, show them carrying buckets or baskets, which likely contained toiletries, perfumes, combs, and cosmetics for the bath. [Source: Elizabeth Williams, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“Necessary to any bathing experience was a good scraper, used to scrub away dead skin loosened by ambient humidity and sweat. Although bathers were mostly nude inside the hot rooms, they were required to wear clothes in the resting areas outside the heated bathing areas. Towels dried the body. In Ottoman lands, the most luxurious examples of the havli (towel) and pestamel (bath wrapper) featured intricate embroidery. After bathing, women sometimes donned elaborate dress appropriate to their social standing. Hammam shoes count among the identifiable items associated with the bath. Elaborate Ottoman-period platform shoes (nalins) were made of wood, with intricate patterns of inlaid mother-of-pearl. \^/

“Modern hammams have transformed as developments in plumbing have rendered many of their services obsolete. Whereas people once regularly went to the public bath to get clean, today's preference for the convenience of the home bathroom have caused the widespread decline of the bathhouse. The baths of Cairo praised by medieval authors, for instance, today lie mostly in ruins. Relatively few clients and spiraling energy costs for heat and water have made the bathhouse an impractical business enterprise. In other places, like Turkey, the hammam has died out as a place for personal hygiene, while retaining a ceremonial role, particularly for bridal preparations. In some regions, however, bath culture thrives. In Syria and Tunisia, for instance, it is possible to find both simple neighborhood baths and fancier institutions akin to Western spas. Although current-day hammams vary greatly in their levels of comfort, all offer the world-weary bather the opportunity for a good sweat, an invigorating scrub, and copious amounts of sweet tea.” \^/

Description of a Turkish Bath in 1717

Lady Mary Wortely Montagu, wife of the English ambassador to Turkey, wrote in April 1717, “I went to the Bagnio about 10 a clock. It was already full of women. It is built of Stone in the shape of a Dome with no Windows but in the roof which gives light enough. There are five of these domes joined together and the outmost being less than the rest and serving only as a hall where the portress stood at the door."

The next room is a very large one, paved with marble, and all around it raised two sofas of marble, one above another. There were four fountains of cold water in this room, falling first into marble basins and then running on the floor in little channels made for that purpose, which carried the streams into the next room, something less than this, with the same sort of marble sofas, but so hot with steams of sulphur proceeding from the baths joining to it, itwas impossible to stay there with one's clothes on. The two other domes were the hot baths, one of which had cocks of cold water turning into it to temper it to what degree of warmth the bathers have a mind to."

”I was in my traveling...dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them, yet there was not one of “em that showed the least surprise and impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court where the Ladies would behaved themselves in so polite a manner to a stranger...They repeated over and over to me, Uzelle pek uzelle, which is nothing but, charming very charming."

Relaxing in a Turkish Bath in 1717

Lady Montagu wrote: “The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladys, and on the second their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being...stark narked...there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture among them...There were many amongst them as exactly proportion’d as ever any Goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian, and most of their skins shiningly white, only adorned by their beautiful hair, divided into many tresses hanging on their shoulders."

”So many fine Women naked in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their cushions while their slaves were employed in braiding their hair in several pretty manners. In short, tis the Women's coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, scandals...etc. They generally take this diversion once a week, and stay there at least four or five hours without getting cold by immediate coming out of the hot bath into the cool room, which was very surprising to me.

The Lady that seemed the most considerable amongst them entreated me to sit by her and would fain have undressed me for the bath. I excused my self with some difficulty, they being all so earnest in persuading me. I was at last forced to open my skirt and shew them my stays, which satisfied 'em very well, for I saw they believed I was so locked up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my Husband. I was charmed with their Civillity and Beauty and should have been very glad to pass more time with them, but Mr W[ortley] resolving to persue his Journey the next morning early, I was in haste to see the ruins of Justinian's church, which did not afford me so agreeable a prospect as I had left, being little more than a heap of stones.

Partying and Lesbian Love in a Turkish Bath in 1836 and 1560

The English traveler Julia Pardoe described a wilder and more poetic scene in 1836: “I was bewildered: the heavy, dense, sulphurous vapor that filled the place, and most suffocated me---the wild, shrill cries of slaves pealing through the reverberating domes...the subdued laughter and whispered conversations of their mistresses murmuring along in a an undercurrent of sound. Nearly 300 women only partially dressed...the busy slaves, passing and repassing, naked from the waist upwards, and with their arms folded, balancing on their heads piles of fringed or embroidered napkins...groups of lovely girls, laughing chatting, and refreshing themselves with sweetmeats and lemonade...and, to crown all, the sudden bursting forth of a chorus of voices into one of the wildest and shrillest Turkish melodies, that was caught up and flung back by the echoes of the vast hall."

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522 - 1592) was a Flemish diplomat and man of letters who was made ambassador to Constantinople by Ferdinand I of Austria. Although he is not well known today, he was still popular in the 19th century and is credited with introducing the lilac and the tulip to western Europe. Charles Thornton Forster and F.H. Blackburne Daniell wrote in their 1881 biography: "During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries hardly any author was so popular as Busbecq. More than twenty editions of his letters were published in the literary capitals of Europe... He was eminently what is called a 'many-sided man'; nothing is above him, nothing beneath him. His political information is important to the soberest historians, his gossiping details would gladden a Macaulay."

The following letter is part of one of his long letters about Ottoman life and manners: Constantinople, 1560: “The great mass of women use the public baths for females, and assemble there in large numbers. Among them are found many girls of exquisite beauty, who have been brought together from different quarters of the globe by various chances of fortune; so cases occur of women falling in love with one another at these baths, in much the same fashion as young men fall in love with maidens in our own country. Thus you see a Turk's precautions are sometimes of no avail, and when he has succeeded in keeping his wives from a male lover, he is still in danger from a female rival! The women become deeply attached to each other, and the baths supply them with opportunities of meeting. Some therefore keep their women away from them as much as possible, but they cannot do so altogether, as the law allows them to go there. This evil affects only the common people; the richer classes bathe at home. [Source: Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522 - 1592): “Lesbian Love in A Turkish Bath, 1560", Life & Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, C. Kegan Paul & Co., London, 1881, pp. 231 - 232, Internet Archive, from Letters Magazine]

Turkish Bath by Ingres

“It happened that in a gathering of this kind, an elderly woman fell in love with a girl, the daughter of an inhabitant of Constantinople, a man of small means. When her courtship and flatteries were not attended with the success her mad passion demanded, she ventured on a course, which to our notions appears almost incredible. Changing her dress, she pretended she was a man, and hired a house near where the girl's father lived, representing herself as one of the slaves of the Sultan, belonging to the class of cavasses; and it was not long before she took advantage of her position as a neighbour, cultivated the father's acquaintance, and asked for his daughter in marriage. Need I say more? The proposal appearing to be satisfactory, the father readily consents, and promises a dowry proportionate to his means. The wedding-day was fixed, and then this charming bridegroom enters the chamber of the bride, takes off her veil, and begins to chat with her. She recognises at once her old acquaintance, screams out, and calls back her father and mother, who discover that they have given their daughter in marriage to a woman instead of a man.

“The next day they bring her before the Aga of the Janissaries, who was governing the city in the Sultan's absence. He tells her that an old woman like her ought to know better than to attempt so mad a freak, and asks, if she is not ashamed of herself? She replies, "Tush! You know not the might of love, and God grant that you may never experience its power." At this the Aga could not restrain his laughter; and ordered her to be carried off at once, and drowned in the sea. Thus the strange passion of this old woman brought her to a bad end.”

Turkish Bath Massages

Turkish massages are given on a marble slab in room full of mist and running water. The massages are bone crunching and rough. The masseuses knead each knuckle and joint and stretch each limb, beyond what seems like the limit. The climax in many cases is when the masseuse walks on your back.

In most hammams the masseuse or a bath attendant scrub you down with soap and a rough cloth or a special glove, resembling an oven mitt made from a Brillo pad, sometimes made of horsehair, and scour your feet with pumice after the massage is over. The scraping is supposed to reduce cellulite and help your skin breath by opening every pore, making you “feel cleaner than you’ve ever felt in your life.” Special soaps are used that have been aged like wine for up to 40 years and contain no chemicals and has no scent. This soap is made completely of oil and makes your hair shiny when it is used as shampoo.

Ann Pringle Harris wrote in the New York Times: a “woman in bikini briefs comes in and leads me back to the marble platform....She splashed me up and down, back and front, and then rubs my hands, feet, toes, heels, legs, arms,, elbows, neck, torso, virtually every body part except my face, with what feels like a fine grade of pumice but looks like a piece of corduroy (the kese). Scrubbed and damp I am now apparently fit for soaping and massage. More water—its odor is extremely pungent—a thorough soaping and lathering, and then a massage in which no muscle is too small to be pummeled into compliance. From time to time my masseuse says, ‘Good?’ and nods her own head. I am too busy trying not to fall off the drenched marble to reply.” ‘Shampoo?’ I say yes, and a cascade of water descends with such suddenness...The more soap, more lathering, more water. My head feels lighter than air and must look like a tub of whipped cream; these are serious suds. Finally I am rinsed, released.”

When it is all over it feels like a lifetime of physical wrongs have been righted. Afterwards you can relax in the steam room again, or, have an attendant wrap you in towels and prepare your tea. These days the massages offered at touristy hammams are short and overpriced. You are more likely to get a good one in a small untourisy hammam.

David Streitfield wrote in the Washington Post, “A big bruiser wearing nothing but a dish towel and clogs is trying to insert my elbow into may ear...We do not share a word in common. I am thus reduced to convey that my body will not stretch as far as he thinks. He doesn’t understand, and pushes a bit more. I moan loudly. He grins. Then he squeezes his hands in a ring around my left leg and pushes down, as if trying to make all my excess fat pop out my toes. Perhaps contemplating how easy it would be to tie me in knots, my guy pulls may arms back and twists them. He then works on my hands, my feet, my neck. Hardly a body part goes untweaked...All this work is being done while I lie on what is basically a giant griddle—a marble platform capable of warming up to a dozen or so men at a time...all wearing the customary Turkish bath towel: a piece of cloth that, when wet, shrinks to size of a Handiwipe.”

Cagaloglu Hamami in Istanbul

On her visit to Cagaloglu Hamami in Istanbul,Mary Ellen Monahan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “As we enter, an Italian woman is quizzing the receptionist about what's involved. I also dither for a moment while recalling a friend's experience 10 years earlier ("strange and uncomfortable"). But Cameron Diaz, John Travolta and Florence Nightingale have enjoyed themselves here, according to the photos adorning the walls. As if by cosmic signal, a quartet of rosy-cheeked Germans saunter out of the women's entrance (the sexes are segregated) and exhort us: "You must do it!" [Source: Mary Ellen Monahan, Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2013 ^^^]

“We pay about $50 each for an exfoliation and soap massage while scanning the spacious main atrium, where wooden balconies are decorated with drying towels. We're shown to the women's entry hall and the individual changing cubicles, each of which contains a bed and traditional wooden sandals. When I ask for a larger size, an attendant tosses me a pair more appropriate for Bigfoot, in which I stumble along with Frances to the spacious hararet, or hot room. Inside, the cerulean sky peeks through tiny windows in the domed ceiling as daylight gives way to dusk. It feels like a shrine to bodily purity interrupted occasionally by the attendants' shouts or humming, which echo along the arched recesses. Captivating scents waft about — jasmine, eucalyptus, rosemary, lemon and yes — a hint of mildew here and there. ^^^

“Our plump masseuses wear black bikini bottoms and lead us to a large marble pedestal around which 10 nude bodies of all shapes and ages lie on cotton cloths. We relax and sweat in the warm, moist air, useful for releasing toxins and promoting a sense of well-being. In the background, faucets trickle, employees slosh water from metal pans to clean patrons or surfaces and soft European voices whisper. (France is well represented. Evidently, French women don't get fat. Note to self: Lay off the pistachio baklava.) The attendants occasionally cluck at one another, and when I'm not drifting into a blissful stupor, I wonder what they're saying. ("Like donkeys, some of these tourists!") After about 15 minutes, my masseuse returns and leads me by the hand to a less-crowded area along the pedestal's edge, where she begins to work her magic.” ^^^

Massage at Istanbul's Cagaloglu Hamami

Mary Ellen Monahan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Inside the Cagaloglu Hamami, my masseuse, a short, paunchy woman of about 50, sings as she exfoliates me from head to toe with a rough mitt. The sweet melody contrasts with the gruff scrub job. Every few minutes, she douses me with a pail of warm water and off goes another layer of skin and, increasingly, my cares. At one point, she shows me the mitt as if for emphasis. I make a mental note to tip more. [Source: Mary Ellen Monahan, Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2013 ^^^]

“A slap on the leg signals me to turn over. I manage to flop onto my stomach, and she begins lathering me all over with soap — first hoisting one arm, then another. As I lie there, the blanket of bubbles effervesces all over my body. A vigorous full-body massage follows. Her thumbs delight in exploring a knot in my left shoulder. "Is good?" she asks afterward. She then leads me to a marble fountain, where I sit for a sublime shampoo and head massage. Suds cover my eyes and mouth, froth about my nostrils and block my ears. "You look like a snowman!" says my friend Frances Thomas. "I wish I had a camera!" ^^^

“For the big finish, my masseuse dumps cold water on my head and cackles as I squeal. "Finish!" she announces with a toothy grin. After the massages, Frances and I spend about an hour moving between warm and cool rooms and just chilling out. Eventually, we shuffle reluctantly toward the exit, lost in reverie. “Lady!" one attendant after another barks, pointing us here or there. "Towel!" one says, wrapping me up and pushing me toward the changing area, where we find several employees in green robes lounging like big bored cats, staring at their mobile phones. We change, tip our masseuses and move on to the open-air courtyard café for apple tea.” ^^^

Bringing Roxelana’s Bathhouse Back to Life

Roxelana was the favorite wife of Suleyman the Magnificent, arguably the greatest Ottoman sultan. Alexandra Hudson and Ece Toksabay of Reuters wrote: “For decades the 16th century bath house built for the Ottoman Empire’s most infamous woman,Roxelana, languished unnoticed between the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia, relegated to life as a carpet showroom. Roxelana’s hamam, a long, domed building completed in 1557 by the prolific architect Sinan, is the latest Istanbul bath to be restored to its former grandeur -- emerging after years of neglect as an oasis of gleaming marble and inviting alcoves. [Source:Alexandra Hudson, Ece Toksabay, Reuters, June 1, 2011]


“In 2007 Istanbul authorities decided to return the hamam to its original use after a 105-year hiatus.” The bath open in June 2011, charging “86 euros for the customary steam bath, peeling and soap massage. The same service in one of the handful of old local hamams still in operation in Istanbul would cost around 15 euros. Visitors to the separate men’s and women’s sections of the bath enter a soaring domed chamber the size of a small mosque, with tiers of wooden changing rooms circling the walls.

After donning a cotton wrap known as a pestemal and slippers they enter the steamy, white marble bath. Once the moisture has penetrated their skin, an attendant scrubs the body to remove the dead skin cells, before dousing the visitor in water. “We don’t know for sure whether Roxelana ever came to her hamam. She died in 1558 and the bath was finished in 1557,” said said architect Tevfik Ilter, who led the 17 million lira project. “Some people think the Sultan built it for her so bathers would pray for her in her ill health. Either way the location of the hamam, right opposite the Haghia Sophia in a central position shows her power and influence.”

Memories from a Hammam in Iraq

Caesar Ahmed and Ned Parker wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Haji Mehdi opened the bathhouse in 1937 for his wrestler friends, who trained and sometimes held impromptu matches outside the hamam. It opened to the public in 1946, and women were allowed in until 1969, when Haji Mehdi decided to ban them because he thought they brought in food -- kebabs and oranges! -- and used too much water. [Source: Caesar Ahmed and Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2008 ^]

“The bathhouse has weathered Iraq's upheavals. The fall of the monarchy, the rise of Saddam Hussein. The Iran-Iraq war. Sanctions. The U.S.-led invasion. The sectarian war.” Haji Mehdi’s grandson “Safar has tried to keep the place running. But now the price of heating oil needed to maintain the balmy temperatures in the bathhouse is rising. His water bills also run high...Safar considers Haji Mehdi a hero. His grandfather wrestled until he was 61. In the time of the monarchy, he ejected one of the king's bodyguards for beating a worker at the hamam. He threw the guard's clothes on the street and left him there standing naked. ^

“In the lobby, three clients come in. One of them is an Iraqi businessman visiting from Sweden. He left two years ago when the violence spiraled out of control, but he is back. He wants a massage, then a cup of hot tea and a stew of sheep's brain, called pacha. The customer jokes that the Haji Mehdi bathhouse would be a hit in Sweden because the weather is so cold. Safar is happy to see the patrons. Summers are slow. The winter months keep him going, when the men come to bathe because they don't have electricity at home. Safar wants to believe it will get better. He turns off the heat to save money, except for Fridays, when he still gets a big crowd. ^

“He thinks back to his grandfather's glory days: how Haji Mehdi wrestled in the orchards to the accompaniment of a band and then returned to the hamam for a massage before capping the festivities with a swim in the Tigris River. He brags about how his grandfather knew champions such as Abbas Deech, who wrestled internationally until a German fighter ripped out his eyeball. ^

“Haji Mehdi would obsess over the era a thousand years earlier when the city had 600 baths. "We are original Baghdadis," Safar says proudly. Safar still remembers when he was 6 and mistook a pipe leading into the women's bathhouse for a trumpet. He blew on the "instrument," and the women ran out naked, believing the washroom was haunted. His grandfather picked him up and thwacked him repeatedly. ^

“The conversation drifts to what is gone. Many Iraqis who used to visit the hamam have fled to neighboring countries or been killed. Others trickle in for rubdowns. Mudaffer, a masseur, was pounding customers' backs that day when the bomb ripped through the bathhouse. Fire and shrapnel blew into the steam room. Blood dripped down his leg. He points below his red shorts to the slight gray lump on his shin. A metal shard that lodged in his ear was removed by doctors. Mudaffer returned to work even though he was still afraid. He takes pride in what he does: He says his massages healed five people last year who had been paralyzed.” ^

Hammams in Morocco

People in Morocco have traditionally not bathed much because of a lack of water. Some people wore lots of clothes that hid the smell. In small villages, some people only bathed once a week, when they walked several kilometers to a larger town and payed 50 cents to bath in a hammam. Traditional dried mud hammans in Morocco are decorated with chalk motifs. Traditional hammam heat well water heated over a fire. The air is often about 120̊F. "Most people don't linger," one tourist told National Geographic. "It's like bathing in an oven."

Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post, “Descended from Roman baths and modeled after Turkish baths, the hammams were originally patronized by Moroccans whose homes lacked indoor plumbing. The baths also are rooted in the Islamic ritual of ablution: Muslims wash distinct parts of their body before their daily prayers. With modernization, though, the hammams have morphed into soak-and-socialize centers; indeed... Each hammam's appeal (read: sanitary factor) varies immensely. Some are undeniably dirty, with dank surroundings and hairballs. Others are hospital-clean and modern.” [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, July 23, 2006 /*/]

Describing the scene at hammam in the old city Fez, Jerelle Robin Kraus wrote in the New York Times, “Yasmin fills two wooden buckets with simmering water. Fatima two more with cold. Working a brick of henna into a murky froth, they lavish their attention on my hair. Then, silently, rhythmically, they lather and massage me for two rapturous hours...Never had I been so calm and clean. Never had my pours felt so open.”

Describing her experience in a hammam in Marrakesh, Sara Wheeler wrote in the New York Times: “Two shriveled women were stirring porridge over a small gas stove. After I had disrobed one of them stripped herself and pushed me through a pair of squealing swinging doors into an arched chamber where a dozen women were sitting on a tiled floor, turbaned in steam and surrounded by buckets with which they were dousing themselves and water sound effects echoed loudly.”

“A sequence of holes in the blackened ceiling admitted tubes of light along warm stalactites of condensation. My new friend, who turned out to be my masseuse...laid me on the floor in a corner, filled a couple buckets and poured very, very hot water over my head. She soaped me, applied “ghassoul”, a traditional clay hair treatment and, with great relish, set about a good deal of pummeling with a rough glove...All around me, small children were being hosed down.”

Aid workers are introducing solar energy to pump water from deep wells and heat the water in hammams. The new solar-powered units pump water into water towers that can hold up to 12,000 gallons. The water is dispensed from a conferee trough with four faucets. Money for the project is paid by admission tickets into the bath house.

Marrakech Hammam Owned by Yves Saint-Laurent

On her visit to the Bain Majorelle hammam in the Ville Nouvelle of Marrakech, outside the medina,Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post, “Bathing usually is a simple operation, but in a Moroccan hammam, it's not your typical rub-a-dub-dub. First, there's no tub, just a honeycomb of tiled rooms with streaming faucets and perspiring walls. The multi-step cleansing technique requires a chemist's brew of hot and cold water, olive oil soap and a mud-like paste. You need to know when to douse and when to drench, when to scrub and when to soak. If you do it right, you'll walk out of the sweat chamber relaxed and glowing. Do it wrong and, well, you should've just stayed in your own bathroom. [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, July 23, 2006 /*/]

“Most Moroccans know the drill, since they've been visiting hammams since they could fit inside a bucket -- a common sight at the facility. On any day, from early morning to late evening, you can see men in traditional jallabas, women trailing children and best girlfriends dragging their toiletry-filled buckets to the ubiquitous hammams. To be sure, the popular outposts are more than just a place to get "a good soak, steam and scrub, and to exfoliate your skin like a snake," explained Latif, my Marrakech guide.” Majorelle “shares the name of the nearby Oriental gardens that were planted during the French protectorate and are now owned by fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent. High-end hotels also have hammams, but many are often solitary and silent. That sounded like my boring-old bathroom at home; I wanted company in the shower. "Here you are with Moroccans," said Latif, as he led me to the women's entrance at Majorelle. "It is traditional. I go at least once a week." /*/

“The all-inclusive package (cost: about $9) includes a fairy godmother with a magic bucket. Mine was Rabia, a doughy Mother Earth type in droopy white bikini bottoms. Taking my hand, Rabia led me to the largest room in the back, where half-naked women sat behind a fortress of buckets, scrubbing their bellies, brushing their wet hair, shaving their legs. Rabia filled a scoop with the henna-clay mixture and mimed for me to paint myself cocoa brown. Covered in the sludge, I waited for her return. And waited. I wrote "HELP" on my muddy leg, but the woman next to me spoke only Arabic. /*/

“Eventually Rabia returned, drowned me under a waterfall, then escorted me to the middle chamber. She then busied herself with filling buckets (my cache had grown from one to three). I was then slowly spun around as she scrubbed all of my angles with a Brillo-like mitt; I could feel my snake skin shedding. More rinsing and lathering followed, this time with a supple olive oil soap that oozed like warm caramel. Then, a massage. After nearly an hour of cleansing, scrubbing and kneading, all that remained was the finale: the ceremonious dumping of the bucket over my head. Rosy red, I was ready to plunge back into the grit of Marrakech. As I gathered my belongings, Rabia handed me a parting gift: my mitt scraper. Now all I needed was a bucket.” /*/

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; "A History of the Arab Peoples" by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); "Encyclopedia of the World Cultures" edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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