Turkey’s Long-Standing Hammam Culture
During the Ottoman Empire, public Turkish hammams, commonly referred to as Turkish bathhouses, were built in droves. Despite Islam and Ottoman culture’s reverence for cleanliness, most people did not have bathing facilities in their homes. The public bathhouses gave individuals a chance to clean themselves and socialize within the community. A trip to the hammam typically took three hours.
Famed 16th-century architect, Mimar Sinan, designed many of Turkey’s most impressive hammams like the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı which faces the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque. The bathhouses reflect mosque architecture and feature lofty domes and intricately shaped windows. Many are part of mosque complexes and have separate sections for men and women.
Hammans play an important role in the Turkish philosophy of keyif, which means “taking time to relax.” The word hammam means “heating and being warm,” which describes the bathhouses’ hot and humid environment and the fact that people use hammams to relax their muscles, increase circulation, and take care of their skin.
Structurally, hammams have three specific areas that differentiate them from other bathhouses. There is a dressing room, a washing section where people bathe and rest, and an underground boiler room that continually keeps the water hot.
In the washing section, guests will find “kurna,” hot and cold water taps where people can wash themselves using metal or copper bowls, “halvet,” private washing areas, and “göbektaşı,” a circular marble steam room with high ceilings.
In a traditional hammam ritual, an attendant, called a “tellak,” washes and massages the guest for about 15 minutes. The guest then wraps themselves in a “peştemal,” which is a flat woven bath towel, and rest in the steam room. After a short while, the tellak helps the guest exfoliate and then takes them to the cooling room, called the “soğukluk.”
You can visit some of the world's most beautiful hammams in Istanbul’s Old City, a protected UNESCO World Heritage site.