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Public Baths in Turkey: From Ottoman Times to Today

written by: Laura Wise • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 3/1/2014

Dating back to Roman times, the public bathhouse was a place for socializing, washing and business. Hamams are the Turkish version of the public bath, and no trip to Turkey is complete without a visit to one.

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    Functions of the Hamam

    The Turkish hamam, called the "steamy sister" of the dry sauna, has long played a role in Middle Eastern and particularly Turkish 16th Century Turkish Bath history and society. Like so much else in Turkish culture, the hamam dates back to the Ottoman Empire. The steam bath in Ottoman times had three basic functions: a place for social gathering; ritual cleansing connected to the Muslim faith, which required spiritual and physical cleanliness; and an architectural witness to the sultan's greatness, power and wealth.

    The most impressive examples of hamam architecture are found in Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire and former capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines considered themselves the direct cultural and political successors to the Roman Empire, where public baths were a staple feature of the community. The Ottomans adopted and continued this practice when they conquered the Byzantines in 1450. No expenses were spared in lavish construction and decoration of the hamams. Valuable materials were used not only in the ruler's private hamam, but also in the public baths. Most of these baths are still functional and in use today.

    Originally, the use of the hamam was restricted to men, but that has since changed. In Ottoman times, each harem would have its own hamam, for women's use only. In modern times, men and women are now both allowed in the same hamam, although they bathe in separate rooms. Smaller hamams have ladies' days.

    Particularly during the Ottoman Empire, hamams were a place for socializing. The bath was open from sunrise to sunset and frequented not only for washing but also for use of the barber, exchange of gossip and news, and even business meetings. In the ladies' section, women could investigate the physical and social qualities of prospective daughters-in-law, enjoy music and entertainment, and indulge in sweets.

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    Bathing in the Hamam

    A hamam consists of three separate rooms: the warm room, the hot room and the cooling-off room. Visitors to hamams are received by a bath attendant who gives them a cotton wrap, special wooden clogs, which prevented slipping on the wet floor, and a rough mitt for massaging. Today's practices are much the same as in days of yore.

    After divesting themselves of their clothes and putting on the wrap and clogs, the bathers enter the warm room. It is heated by a constant flow of hot, dry air, instigating relaxation and perspiration. After "warming up," they proceed to an even hotter room before entering the steam and massage area. Bathers lie down on marble slabs and, with the help of a masseuse, wash down vigorously, scrubbing with the mitt and abundant soap while at the same time receiving a reviving massage. Hot or cold water, according to the bather's taste, is used to wash away the suds and residue. After being cleaned and massaged, the bather retires to the cooling room. Here he or she relaxes from the exertions of the massage and allows the stress-relieving benefits of the treatment to take full effect. The most socializing takes place in this room as the bathers canrelax and chat together.

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    A harem bathouse At the time of the Ottoman Empire, tellaks --- bathing attendants for men --- played a very important role. Tellaks were young boys recruited from the ranks of non-Muslim subjects of the vast Turkish Empire. Their function was blatantly sexual, serving their male customers in various ways. Obviously, this practice is not continued in modern times, but during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, this was completely acceptable. While sodomy was forbidden by Islam, other types of homoerotic relations were not. The tellaks were not slaves; on the contrary, they were well paid for their services. Often, they were even closely attached to their customers. Another curious fact is that tellaks were tax exempt.

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    Hamams in Modern Turkey

    The fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I brought many changes, including the division of its lands into different countries and the modernization, industrialization and Westernization of the resulting countries. The country of Turkey remained in what had been the seat of the old Ottoman Empire. However, with these economical and governmental changes, together with the improvement of plumbing, showers and bathrooms, the use of hamams in Turkey declined. Particularly, the hamam's function as a social gathering place became nearly obsolete. However, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen increasing tourism and tourist interest in Turkey, and hamams, Turkey's bathhouses, have made a comeback. Hamam centers are frequently visited by foreign travelers who want to experience authentic Turkish traditions and culture.