Turkish Baths

Hamam is the word for Turkish baths in the country’s native language. Baths in Turkey are located everywhere, as they are in many Middle East and Mediterranean countries, including the countries of Italy and Greece. The hamam is a steam bath, perhaps best defined as the wet version of a sauna.

The Turkish bath house has always played an important part in the history of all Middle Eastern cultures, combining the traditions of spiritual and ritual cleansing with a center for social gathering and cultural exchange. The hamam is not specific to the country of Turkey. Turkish baths only came to be called that because the people of Europe learned of them through their contact and trade with the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century. Today they are found throughout the world, and many Turkish luxury hotels and beach resorts have full-service spas that include this ultimate spa experience.

Originally, the ritual cleansing that is part of the experience of baths in Turkey meant that many were built as annexes to mosques so that the Muslim devout could undergo the ritual cleansing required before prayers. There is also one that is part of the Suleymaniye Mosque and another in Sultanahmet Square, location of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.

The Turkish bath house is not an exclusive practice of Turkey or Middle Eastern cultures. Native Americans had something that fulfilled this function in North America in the form of traditional sweat lodges; the Jewish culture has the mikveh ritual bath, and you will find these in Istanbul, Jerusalem, and anywhere else there is a thriving Jewish community. Even Budapest has a number of operating sixteenth-century Turkish baths. The city of London has several dating to the nineteenth century.

By the time of Suleyman the Magnificent, the architecture of baths in Turkey had become a grand art to rival the era’s greatest monuments. The finest hamam in Istanbul is without a doubt the Cemberlitas Hamani, built in 1584. It is an imposing Ottoman structure of domes, marble interiors, and lovely mosaics. The spa treatments at Cemberlitas are not inexpensive, but part of the experience is soaking in the architectural grandeur of the historic structure. There are other traditional baths in the city, including at some of the spas in the 5-star Istanbul hotels, and which provide more in-depth massages. Look especially for the spas at the Ritz Carlton and the lovely Ciragan Palace Hotel. Visitors can actually book a visit to a hamam as the final feature of Bosphorus river cruises or other Istanbul tours.

Turkish baths typically have three interconnected rooms for each sex. The sucaklik is a hot room where one soaks up the heat and steam. The tepidarium is a bath for washing with soap and water—this is where massages also occur. The sogukluk is a relaxation and dressing room where tea and juice is served; some even have quiet areas for napping. These baths were an integral part of every Ottoman outpost, and you will find ancient ones from Bodrum to Marmaris. Archeological sites, like the city of Ephesus near Izmir and Perge near Antalya, boast the ruins of ancient ones.

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