Hamman in Cairo

Hammams (Turkish baths) traditionally have consisted of sunken tubs and marble platforms surrounded by glazed tiles, all placed in rooms without windows, which trapped heat and moisture from a Turkish steam bath. Large hamans traditionally have had a central tub with marble steps. Some have enclosed private tubs. The steam is relaxing and hot but not as hot as a sauna. Nice hammams have domes above the tubs and marble slabs. The domes often have small holes in them through which beams of light strike the bather.

There are hammams for both men and women. Some Turkish baths have separate baths for men and women. Others have certain hours of the day when each sex is admitted. Women generally have the afternoons and the men the evenings. They were traditionally places where people gathered to socialize, gossip and exchange news.

Hamman means "spreader of warmth." The custom of taking Turkish-style baths goes back centuries before the Ottoman Turks. Not as elaborate as their Roman counterparts, medieval hammans featured a series of rooms heated at different temperatures. Cleanliness was prized but was a luxury in the hot climates. Alink was made between cleanliness, purity and spirituality. It is said that Crusaders who enjoyed hammans in the Holy Land brought the custom back to Europe.

Elizabeth Williams of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Although today we think of bathing as a private activity, the public bath, or hammam, was a vital social institution in any Middle Eastern city for centuries before the advent of modern plumbing. Hammams played a central role in promoting hygiene and public health, but they also served as meeting places where people could relax and socialize. [Source:Elizabeth Williams, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Books: “4.11, Hilal al-Sabi’: Estimating the Number of Bathhouses in Baghdad.” In Islamic Art and Visual Culture: An Anthology of Sources, edited by D. Fairchild Ruggles, pp. 91–92.. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011; Ellis, Marianne and Jennifer Wearden Ottoman Embroidery. London: V&A Publications, 2001; Meunier, Pascal, May Telmissany, and Eve Gandossi The Last Hammams of Cairo: A Disappearing Bathhouse Culture.. Cairo: American University, 2009; Peterson, Andrew “Hammam.” In Dictionary of Islamic Architecture, pp. 107–8.. London: Routledge, 1996; Tohme, Lara “Out of Antiquity: Umayyad Baths in Context.” Ph.D. diss., MIT. : , 2005.\^/

Websites and Resources: Ottoman Empire and Turks: The Ottomans.org theottomans.org ; Ottoman Text Archive Project – University of Washington courses.washington.edu ; Wikipedia article on the Ottoman Empire Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on the Ottoman Empire britannica.com ; American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century Shapell Manuscript Foundation shapell.org/historical-perspectives/exhibitions ; Ottoman Empire and Turk Resources – University of Michigan umich.edu/~turkis ; Turkey in Asia, 1920 wdl.org ; Wikipedia article on the Turkish People Wikipedia ; Turkish Studies, Turkic republics, regions, and peoples at University of Michigan umich.edu/~turkish/turkic ; Türkçestan Orientaal's links to Turkic languages users.telenet.be/orientaal/turkcestan ; Turkish Culture Portal turkishculture.org ; ATON, the Uysal-Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative at Texas Tech University aton.ttu.edu ; The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 archive.org/details/horsewheelandlanguage ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

History of the Hammam

Elizabeth Williams of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The hammam has a long history in the Mediterranean, which can be traced to Roman thermae. Baths were common throughout the Roman empire in a geographic range stretching from Europe to North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Roman baths generally featured a reception room, or apodyterium, which led to a hot room called a caldarium, a warm room, or tepidarium, and a cold room known as a frigidarium. Visitors moved through these rooms, where temperature changes stimulated the flow of blood and encouraged the body to sweat out impurities. Some baths included areas where bathers could exercise. [Source: Elizabeth Williams, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“While the tradition of public baths popularized under the Romans slowly died out in the West, it continued over many centuries in the eastern Mediterranean. Byzantine baths in the region kept many of the same traditions of the earlier Roman baths, including trends in decoration such as intricate mosaic floors (40.185). The Umayyad caliphs (661–750) built particularly lavish private baths as an essential component of their imperial palaces, or qusur. The eighth-century complex Qusayr ‘Amra in Jordan is perhaps the best known of these. The bath’s walls are covered with elaborate paintings, including scenes showing nude women bathing. However, Umayyad baths varied somewhat from their predecessors in that the cold room was removed, reception rooms were larger, bath chambers smaller, and layouts more intricate. Scholars posit that imperial Umayyad baths were settings for courtly entertainment, and indeed period literature recounts stories of drinking parties held at the qusur.\^/

“By the medieval period, public baths had become an important part of community life, and the quality and number of baths counted among any city’s most admired attributes. Medieval authors mention hammams alongside mosques, madrasas (schools), and gardens in their descriptions of beautiful and prosperous cities. Hilal al-Sabi' (969–1056), for example, estimated that Baghdad at its height had 60,000 bathhouses. While al- Sabi' may have exaggerated, the hyperbole does effectively relay the grandeur of the Abbasid capital. Although hammams throughout the Middle East resembled each other in terms of their basic outlines, the articulation of the bath’s structure and its decoration were often regionally specific (1994.71).\^/

“Western visitors, too, were fascinated by hammams. Orientalist painters traveling in the Middle East in the nineteenth century relished depictions of scintillating scenes inside bathhouses, using the setting as an excuse for painting nude bodies and exotic architectural details (26.158.3).” \^/

Hammam Bathing Customs and Accessories

A Turkish lady and her slave

Elizabeth Williams of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Although most studies of hammams focus on their architecture and decoration, no less important were the objects used in the bath. Hammams were generally single-sex, with men and women having separate bathhouses or bathing times. ( Some depictions of women, including a monumental torso from Qasr al-Mshatta dating to the Umayyad period, show them carrying buckets or baskets, which likely contained toiletries, perfumes, combs, and cosmetics for the bath (38.118.17). [Source: Elizabeth Williams, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Necessary to any bathing experience was a good scraper (26.102.7), used to scrub away dead skin loosened by ambient humidity and sweat. Although bathers were mostly nude inside the hot rooms, they were required to wear clothes in the resting areas outside the heated bathing areas. Towels dried the body. In Ottoman lands, the most luxurious examples of the havli (towel) and pestamel (bath wrapper) featured intricate embroidery (26.34.65). After bathing, women sometimes donned elaborate dress appropriate to their social standing. Hammam shoes count among the identifiable items associated with the bath. Elaborate Ottoman-period platform shoes (nalins) were made of wood, with intricate patterns of inlaid mother-of-pearl (1972.248.5a,b). \^/

“Modern hammams have transformed as developments in plumbing have rendered many of their services obsolete. Whereas people once regularly went to the public bath to get clean, today’s preference for the convenience of the home bathroom have caused the widespread decline of the bathhouse. The baths of Cairo praised by medieval authors, for instance, today lie mostly in ruins. Relatively few clients and spiraling energy costs for heat and water have made the bathhouse an impractical business enterprise. In other places, like Turkey, the hammam has died out as a place for personal hygiene, while retaining a ceremonial role, particularly for bridal preparations. In some regions, however, bath culture thrives. In Syria and Tunisia, for instance, it is possible to find both simple neighborhood baths and fancier institutions akin to Western spas. Although current-day hammams vary greatly in their levels of comfort, all offer the world-weary bather the opportunity for a good sweat, an invigorating scrub, and copious amounts of sweet tea. \^/

Description of a Turkish Bath in 1717

Lady Mary Wortely Montagu, wife of the English ambassador to Turkey, wrote in April 1717, “I went to the Bagnio about 10 a clock. It was already full of women. It is built of Stone in the shape of a Dome with no Windows but in the roof which gives light enough. There are five of these domes joined together and the outmost being less than the rest and serving only as a hall where the portress stood at the door.”

The next room is a very large one, paved with marble, and all around it raised two sofas of marble, one above another. There were four fountains of cold water in this room, falling first into marble basins and then running on the floor in little channels made for that purpose, which carried the streams into the next room, something less than this, with the same sort of marble sofas, but so hot with steams of sulphur proceeding from the baths joining to it, itwas impossible to stay there with one’s clothes on. The two other domes were the hot baths, one of which had cocks of cold water turning into it to temper it to what degree of warmth the bathers have a mind to.”

”I was in my traveling...dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them, yet there was not one of “em that showed the least surprise and impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court where the Ladies would behaved themselves in so polite a manner to a stranger...They repeated over and over to me, Uzelle pek uzelle, which is nothing but, charming very charming.”

Relaxing in a Turkish Bath in 1717

Lady Montagu wrote: “The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladys, and on the second their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being...stark narked...there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture among them...There were many amongst them as exactly proportion’d as ever any Goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian, and most of their skins shiningly white, only adorned by their beautiful hair, divided into many tresses hanging on their shoulders.”

”So many fine Women naked in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their cushions while their slaves were employed in braiding their hair in several pretty manners. In short, tis the Women’s coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, scandals...etc. They generally take this diversion once a week, and stay there at least four or five hours without getting cold by immediate coming out of the hot bath into the cool room, which was very surprising to me.

The Lady that seemed the most considerable amongst them entreated me to sit by her and would fain have undressed me for the bath. I excused my self with some difficulty, they being all so earnest in persuading me. I was at last forced to open my skirt and shew them my stays, which satisfied 'em very well, for I saw they believed I was so locked up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my Husband. I was charmed with their Civillity and Beauty and should have been very glad to pass more time with them, but Mr W[ortley] resolving to persue his Journey the next morning early, I was in haste to see the ruins of Justinian's church, which did not afford me so agreeable a prospect as I had left, being little more than a heap of stones.

Partying in a Turkish Bath in 1836

The English traveler Julia Pardoe described a wilder and more poetic scene in 1836: “I was bewildered: the heavy, dense, sulphurous vapor that filled the place, and most suffocated me---the wild, shrill cries of slaves pealing through the reverberating domes...the subdued laughter and whispered conversations of their mistresses murmuring along in a an undercurrent of sound.”

Ingres, Turkish Bath

“Nearly 300 women only partially dressed...the busy slaves, passing and repassing, naked from the waist upwards, and with their arms folded, balancing on their heads piles of fringed or embroidered napkins...groups of lovely girls, laughing chatting, and refreshing themselves with sweetmeats and lemonade...and, to crown all, the sudden bursting forth of a chorus of voices into one of the wildest and shrillest Turkish melodies, that was caught up and flung back by the echoes of the vast hall.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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