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Chances are if you’re going to Turkey, you’ve heard of the Turkish Bath. In Turkey it is called a Hammam and they are ubiquitous in the cities of Istanbul and Cappadocia. I experienced one in each city and found them to be relaxing and refreshing, but Turkish Baths weren’t always meant to be a special experience. In fact, originally, they were just a part of everyday life.
A hammam is a Turkish communal bathhouse. There, bathing is just as much about relaxation (and community connection) as it is about cleanliness. What we call “self-care” today has a long and rich history of association with a sort of spiritual purification .
In Istanbul and other parts of Turkey, where the hammam are still very traditional, bathing follows special steps: sitting in a warm room beside a kurna steam basin; scrubbing (or being scrubbed) with a traditional kese; lying on a warm marble slab (called a gobektasi) while getting a well-sudsed massage; then lounging the communal pool to socialize .
Visiting a hammam is as much a unique cultural experience as it sounds, but it’s also an act of self-care.
The origin story of the hammam and how it became such a unique cultural experience starts with two distinct bath rituals, developed 2,700 miles (4,345 km) apart and 1,500 years before Istanbul built its first Turkish bathhouse.
Ancient Roman thermae practices, originating in the 2nd century BC, turned bathhouses into pillars of communal life . Rome has evidence of bathhouses and early-sauna-like rooms in the ruins of the Roman Forum and other areas. I learned that while on the Colosseum & Roman Forum Tour during my trip to Rome. I found it so interesting to see the connection between cultures after having just left Turkey.
Near-simultaneously as the Romans, Manchu steam baths developed among Turkic people (in shamanistic rituals) long before they migrated to Central Asia, which was long before they would migrate to Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) [4, 5].
These two practices collided following the “Islamic Conquest” of Roman-controlled Alexandria in 641AD and gradual turn-over of formerly Roman-held land to Turkish governors through the mid-800s .
It was then that Turkish people began blending the cultural experience and processes of Roman thermae bathing with the deep-seated spiritualism of manchu baths.
This may have started as an act of necessity — many homes didn’t have private baths — yet it grew into an enduring and vital space for self-care and community.
Turkish bathhouse practices started in the 7th century. Though, another 600 years passed before the construction of the first hammam in Istanbul, which formalized the blend of thermae and manchu elements. [7, 8].
These new baths retained (and, thanks to manchu purification beliefs, improved) many of the structures of Roman baths.
Going to the hammam persisted as a rich cultural experience with an essential, constantly-evolving social function . From my experience, the social aspect of the hammam is priceless. Being surrounded by women, caring for women, in a relaxing environment feels very refreshing. There is an element of “slumber party vibe” mixed with deep tradition and sanctity.
Today, this cultural experience is unique to Turkey but reflective of and responsive to changing community- and personal-needs. Consequently, hammams remain distinct in their approach to self-care as well as the preservation of Turkish culture and the practice of some so-ancient-as-to-be-near-untraceable spiritualism .
When you go to Turkey, you have to try it to find out for yourself. It’s an experience worth checking out, for sure! Click here to book yours using my affiliate link. I may get a small commision at no extra cost to you.
Hammams have played an interesting historical role as gathering spaces for people not permitted social visibility. That’s why traditional hammam in Turkey and other Mediterranean countries quickly became social spaces for women that helped support the expression of their social power .
For example, when women weren’t allowed to gather in many public places, eligible bachelors’ mothers would take their prospective daughters-in-law to the hammam to scope her out .
Outside of Turkey, Turkish people were often treated with suspicion because of racist and xenophobic views of Islam. As a result, Turkish expats often created footholds for community in new places by opening a hammam . There, people could combat their homesickness with cultural experience while preserving traditions that provoked hostility when practiced anywhere else.
When you go to a Turkish Hamman, especially one that keeps males and females separated, you will feel the sisterhood vibration that emanates through the entire experience. It’s like the walls themselves have taken the role of holding space for our social cocoons to expand into full blown butterflies. As a woman, I felt welcomed and comforted by the sanctity of the Hammam.
Though many of these protective functions aren’t needed anymore, visiting a hammam is still an incredible cultural experience that’s also an incredible opportunity for the jet-lagged, stressed-out, and culture-shocked traveler to respect their need for self-care.
Here, you can be rejuvenated and feel physically, emotionally, and (uniquely) spiritually calmed without ever once feeling guilty that you might be missing out on seeing all there is to see while in Turkey.
After all, everything that happens within the four walls (and three chambers) of the hammam represents the culture and history of Turkey just as much as everything that’s outside it. If you’re interested in learning more about what I learned while exploring Turkish culture, check this out.
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