I recently spent a a few days in my native Istanbul and had a special girls night out with my friends. We started at the hammam to properly pamper ourselves had a great time. While relaxing on göbektaşı, the large heated marble, my thoughts started to wander about the old traditions and just how deliciously luxurious they can be.
The hammam is a traditional Turkish bath, a large complex dedicated to well being, sanitation and as most things Turkish, a place for socialising and enjoying life. It’s embedded into the cultural fabric of the land and its people through generations and thanks to the modernisation of these facilities, it’s making a significant comeback.
When Turks first came to Anatolia in the 10th cc, one of the things they were pleased to find in this new land were the Roman baths which provided similar structures to their cleansing rituals that were born both from their Asian root and Islamic culture in which hygiene is essential to prayer.
With the rise of the Ottomans architecture and fine arts the hammams turn into monumental structures. The Sultans and Pashas, after a successful mission to brought civilization to the newly captured territories and sometimes as presents to their favourite concubines commissioned famous architects to build hammams adorned with gardens and beautiful tiles and they were widespread throughout the empire.
After successful restorations most of them are still in use in today’s Turkey. They are populated by locals and tourists alike and constantly increasing their popularity by adopting the old customs to the modern tastes and styles. An example is the ultra stylish Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, the 16th century hammam ordered by Süleyman the Magnificent to Mimar Sinan, the most famous architect of his time, for his favourite wife, Hürrem. Reopened after an expensive restoration, it combines the best features of hammams and spas in its beautifully structured marble rooms and terraces.
In Ottoman times, apart from being a place for sanitation and relaxation, special bathing rituals took place at hammams to signify the important days such as preparation to fetes, weddings and even the start of a military service. Today the tradition continues in the form bachelor parties where many young locals start their stag or hen parties at relaxing at a hammam before going to clubbing.
In the relatively closed life of the Ottoman women, the hammam was filling a big vacuum for entertainment, showing off to neighbours, keeping up with the latest gossip and even finding suitable brides for one’s sons. After all, the hammam was the perfect place to examine one’s future daughter-in-law not only for her physical beauty but also for her behaviour and abilities. Even the wives of the rich, who had private baths in their houses, frequented the common hammams. Usually a weekly affair, the preparations for a hammam visit typically started one day earlier. Apart from preparing the typical hammam set of peştemal (a light linen cloth to wrap around the body), takunya (wooden sandalets), hammam tası (a copper bowl), scented soaps & oils and henna (for hair as well as hands), delicious pastries , fresh fruits , various lemonades and sherbet as well as musical instruments were prepared to enjoy this ‘girls-day-out’.
Similar to the Roman baths, a typical hammam consists of three interconnected rooms; the sıcaklık (the hot room), the ılıklık (the warm room) and the soğukluk (the cold room).
The sıcaklık is the heart of the hammam. It’s usually built under a large dome with small windows to provide natural light and accomodates the göbek taşı ,a heated large marble stone to lie down and relax, eyvans or niches with marble basins that provide hot and cold water and halvetlik, small private rooms if you choose to escape from the prying eyes. Best of all, it smells heavenly with the soaps and aromatic oils, instead of smelling of chloride common to pools.
It’s also my favourite part of the hammam, mainly because of the use of the light which can differ from powerful to mystical in different parts of the great marble room but also for listening to the gentle sounds of running water while lying down on the göbek taşı as the heat slowly sinks into my muscles. Afterwards, one continues to the ılıklık to have a kese – think a bubbly form of Swedish massage applied with a rough piece of cloth called kese to increase blood circulation. Because the body is still warm, instead of feeling raw the next day, you feel great. The chic hammams of today offer many different types from aromatherapy massages and facials to bubble baths, but the traditional kese is still one of the best if you complain from sore muscles. It’s followed by washing with soaps and oils.
The kese is always applied by tellak, the attendant acting as a private masseur and helping with the scrubbing and washing. Traditionally, the hammams had separate sections for women and men called haremlik and selamlık and the tellaks who served in these sections were either women or men depending on whom they serve. In Ottoman times it was quite the norm for the tellak boys to carry out sexual favours as a part of their services to their male clients and some of them were the favourites of merchants, soldiers and poets. In his book Hubbanname (Book of Beautiful Boys), the 15th century poet Fuzuli paid homage to the beauties and abilities of his favourite tellaks in quite some detail.
The hammam tradition also caught the imagination of the visiting foreigners. Among them, the 18th cc French painter Gerome had created many nude hammam paintings while visiting Istanbul, later exhibited as a part of his Orient collection. His courage together with his technique must be praised, for the punishment of getting caught in the harem section of the hammam was death.
After all the washing and scrubbing is done the best way to relax is to change into a dry peştemal and enjoy a refreshing drink or a sorbet at the soğukluk as did countless people through centuries. Today, the soğukluk usually comes complete with a vitamin bar, a coiffeur and a small boutique for a bit of shopping, a la hammam.
Some things never change, only get better in time.