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 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.