The History of Turkish bath, the Hammam

A Turkish bath (Turkish: hamam, Arabic: الحمام, ḥammām‎‎) is the Islamic variant of the Roman bath, steam bath, sauna, or Russian banya, distinguished by a focus on water, as distinct from ambient steam. In Western Europe, the “Turkish bath” as a method of cleansing and relaxation became popular during the Victorian era. The process involved […]

A Turkish bath (Turkish: hamam, Arabic: الحمام, ḥammām‎‎) is the Islamic variant of the Roman bath, steam bath, sauna, or Russian banya, distinguished by a focus on water, as distinct from ambient steam.

In Western Europe, the “Turkish bath” as a method of cleansing and relaxation became popular during the Victorian era. The process involved in taking a Turkish bath is similar to that of a sauna, but is more closely related to ancient Greek and ancient Roman bathing practices.

The Turkish bath starts with relaxation in a room (known as the warm room) that is heated by a continuous flow of hot, dry air, allowing the bather to perspire freely. Bathers may then move to an even hotter room (known as the hot room) before they wash in cold water. After performing a full body wash and receiving a massage, bathers finally retire to the cooling-room for a period of relaxation.

The difference between the Islamic hammam and the Victorian Turkish bath is the air. The hot air in the Victorian Turkish bath is dry; in the Islamic hammam the air is often steamy. The bather in a Victorian Turkish bath will often take a plunge in a cold pool after the hot rooms; the Islamic hammam usually does not have a pool unless the water is flowing from a spring. In the Islamic hammams the bathers splash themselves with cold water.

The Victorian Turkish bath was described by Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Thudichum in a lecture to the Royal Society of Medicine given in 1861, one year after the first Victorian Turkish bath was opened in London:

“The discovery that was lost and has been found again, is this, in the fewest possible words: The application of hot air to the human body. It is not wet air, nor moist air, nor vapoury air; it is not vapour in any shape or form whatever. It is an immersion of the whole body in hot common air.”

Public bathing in the Islamic context

One of the Five Pillars of Islam is prayer. It is customary before praying for Muslims to perform ablutions. The two Islamic forms of ablution are ghusl, a full-body cleansing, and wudu, a cleansing of the face, hands, and feet with water. In the most extreme of cases, cleansing with pure soil or sand is also permissible. Often, hammams are located close to mosques and other places for prayer for those who wish to perform deeper cleansing.

Sexuality and the hammam

Islamic hammams, particularly in the Moroccan case, evolved from their Roman roots to adapt to the needs of ritual purification according to Islam. For example, in most Roman-style hammams, one finds a cold pool for full submergence of the body. The style of bathing is less preferable in the Islamic faith, which finds bathing under running water without being fully submerged more appropriate.

Al-Ghazali, a prominent Muslim theologian writing in the 11th century, wrote Revival of the Religious Sciences, a multi-volume work on dissecting the proper forms of conduct for many aspects of Muslim life and death. One of the volumes, entitled The Mysteries of Purity, details the proper technique for performing ablutions before prayer and great ablutions after physical activities deemed unclean, such as sex or defecation. For al-Ghazali, the hammam is a primarily male experience, and he cautions that women are to enter the hammam only after childbirth or illness. Even then al-Gazali finds it admissible for men to prohibit their wives or sisters from using the hammam. The major point of contention surrounding hammams in al-Ghazali’s estimation is nakedness. In his work he warns that overt nakedness is to be avoided. “… he should shield it from the sight of others and second, guard against the touch of others.” He focuses extensively in his writing on the avoidance of touching the penis during bathing and after urination. He writes that nakedness is decent only when the area between the knees and the lower stomach of a man are hidden. For women, only the face and the palms are appropriate. According to al-Gazali, the prevalence of nakedness in the hammam could incite indecent thoughts or behaviours and so it is a controversial space. Ritual ablution is also required before or after sexual intercourse. Knowing that, May Telmissany, a professor at the University of Ottawa, argues that the image of a hyper-sexualised woman leaving the hammam is an Orientalist perspective that sees leaving or attending the hammam as a sign of pre-eminent sexual behaviour.


The hammam combines the functionality and the structural elements of its predecessors in Anatolia, the Roman thermae and baths, with the Central Asian Turkic tradition of steam bathing, ritual cleansing and respect of water. It is also known that Arabs built versions of the Greek-Roman baths that they encountered following their conquest of Alexandria in 641. From the 10th century, Turkish kingdoms began to proliferate in Anatolia in lands conquered from the Byzantine Greeks, leading eventually to the complete conquest of the remnants of the old empire in the 15th century. During those centuries of war, peace, alliance, trade and competition, the two cultures (Hellenised Roman and Anatolian Turkish) had tremendous influence on each other. Moving beyond the reuse of the Greek baths (for example Byzantine Bath (Thessaloniki)) in their new lands, new bath were constructed as annex buildings of mosques, the complexes of which were community centres as well as houses of worship.

The Ottomans became prolific patrons of baths building a number of ambitious structures, particularly in Constantinople, whose Greek inhabitants had retained a strong Eastern Roman bath culture. The monumental baths designed by Renaissance Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan (1489–1588), such as the stand-alone 1584 “Çemberlitaş Hamamı”, the bath in the complex of the 1558 Süleymaniye Mosque (both in Constantinople) and the bath of the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne were particularly influential.

hammam3Like its Roman predecessor a typical hamam consists of three basic, interconnected rooms: the sıcaklık (or hararetcaldarium), which is the hot room; the warm room (tepidarium), which is the intermediate room; and the soğukluk, which is the cool room (frigidarium). The main evolutionary change between Roman baths and Turkish baths concerned the cool room. The Roman frigidarium included a quite cold water pool in which patrons would immerse themselves before moving on to the warmer rooms. Medieval Muslim customs put a high priority on cleanliness but preferred running water to immersion baths, so the cold water pool was dispensed with. Also, the sequence of rooms was revised so that people generally used the cool room after the warmer rooms and massages, rather than before. Whereas the Romans used it as preparation, the Ottomans used it for refreshment (drinks and snacks are served) and recovery.

The sıcaklık usually has a large dome decorated with small glass windows that create a half-light; it also contains a large marble stone called göbek taşı (tummy stone) at the center that the customers lie on, and niches with fountains in the corners. This room is for soaking up steam and getting scrub massages. The warm room is used for washing up with soap and water and the soğukluk is to relax, dress up, have a refreshing drink, sometimes tea, and, where available, a nap in a private cubicle after the massage. A few of the hamams in Istanbul also contain mikvehs, ritual cleansing baths for Jewish women.

The hamam, like its precursors, is not exclusive to men. Hamam complexes usually contain separate quarters for men and women; or males and females are admitted at separate times. Because they were social centers as well as baths, hamams became numerous during the time of the Ottoman Empire and were built in almost every Ottoman city. On many occasions they became places of entertainment (such as dancing and food, especially in the women’s quarters) and ceremonies, such as before weddings, high-holidays, celebrating newborns, beauty trips.

Several accessories from Roman times survive in modern hamams, such as the peştemal (a special cloth of silk and/or cotton to cover the body, like a pareo), nalın (wooden clogs that prevent slipping on the wet floor, or mother-of-pearl), kese (a rough mitt for massage), and sometimes jewel boxes, gilded soap boxes, mirrors, henna bowls and perfume bottles. Traditionally, the masseurs in the baths, tellak in Turkish, were young men who helped wash clients by soaping and scrubbing their bodies.

After the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman army in the early 20th century, the role of tellak boys was filled by adult attendants.

hammam2Turkish baths in Istanbul

Ağa Hamamı

Ağa hamamı is a historical Turkish bath located on Turnacıbaşı Street in the Taksim Square neighbourhood of Istanbul. It was constructed by İbrahim Ağa in 1454.

Çağaloğlu Hamamı

The Cağaloğlu Hamam, finished in 1741, is the last hamam to be built in the Ottoman Empire.

Çemberlitaş Hamamı

Çemberlitaş Hamamı is a historic Turkish bath on Divanyolu Street in the Çemberlitaş neighbourhood of Istanbul. It was constructed by Mimar Sinan in 1584.

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı

The Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, Ayasofya Haseki Hamamı, is a Turkish hamam that was commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I’s consort, Hürrem Sultan and constructed by Mimar Sinan during the 16th century in Istanbul. It was built on the site of historical Baths of Zeuxippus for the religious community of the nearby Hagia Sophia.

Suleymaniye Hamam

Süleymaniye Hamam is a historic Turkish bath in İstanbul. The building, situated on a hill facing the Golden Horn, was built in 1557 by Turkish architect Mimar Sinan; it was named after Süleyman the Magnificent. It is part of the complex of the Suleymaniye Mosque.

In different countries


hammam_omeryeHamam Omerye Baths, Omerye, Cyprus

The site’s history dates back to the 14th century, when it stood as an Augustinian church of St. Mary. Built with stone, with small domes, it is historically placed at around the time of Frankish and Venetian occupation, approximately the same time that the city acquired its Venetian walls. In 1571, the Ottoman Turkish ruler Mustafa Bilal Geldosh Pasha converted the church into a mosque, believing that it was where the Khalifa Umar rested during his visit to Lefkosia.

Most of the original building was destroyed by Ottoman artillery although the door of the main entrance still belongs to the 14th century Lusignan building, and remains of a later Renaissance phase can be seen at the north-eastern side of the monument. In 2003 the [EU] funded a bi-communal UNDP/UNOPS project, “Partnership for the Future”, in collaboration with Nicosia Municipality and Nicosia Master Plan.

Another historically important Turkish bath, dating to the 14th century in Nicosia, is the Büyük Hamam.


Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, and the hamams of Cairo and other major cities like Alexandria are evidence of the unique Ottoman legacy. There used to be as many as 300 hamams in Cairo. As of 2012, only seven remain. Two of them, located in the El Hussien and Khan el-Khalili districts are closed.


hammam_kiralyKirály Baths building on Ganz Street, Budapest

Budapest, the City of Spas has four working Turkish baths, all from the 16th century and open to the public: Rudas Baths, Király Baths, Rácz Thermal Bath, and Császár Spa Bath (reopened to the public since December 2012).


The ruins of the oldest known Islamic hammam in Morocco, dating back to the late 8th century, can be found in Volubilis. Public baths in Morocco are embedded into a social-cultural history that has played a significant role in both urban and rural Moroccan cities. These public spaces for cleansing grew rapidly as Islamic cultures assimilated to the bathing techniques widely used during the Roman and Byzantine periods. The structure of Islamic hammams in the Arab world varies from that of what has been termed the traditional “Roman bath.” Additionally, since Morocco (unlike Egypt or Syria) was never under Ottoman rule, its baths are not technically Turkish although guide books might refer to them as such. This misnomer can be due in part to the Arabic use of the word hammam, which translates to “bathroom” or “public bath place” and can be used to refer to all baths, including those in the Turkish and Roman design.

Architectural attributes

Hammams in Morocco are often close to mosques to facilitate the performance of ablutions. Because of their private nature (overt nudity and gender separation), their entrances are often discreet and the building’s façade is typically windowless. Vestiges of Roman bathing styles can be seen in the manifestation of the three-room structure, which was widespread during the Roman/Byzantine period.

In Morocco, hammams are typically smaller than Roman/Byzantine baths. While it may be difficult to identify a hammam from the face of the structure, the hammam roof betrays itself with its series of characteristic domes that indicate chambers in the building. Hammams often occupy irregularly shaped plots to fit them seamlessly into the city’s design. They are significant sites of culture and socialisation as they are integrated into medina, or city, life in proximity to mosques, madrassas (schools) and aswaq (markets). Magda Sibley, an expert on Islamic public baths writes that second to mosques, many specialists in Islamic architecture and urbanism find the hammam to be the most significant building in Islamic medinas.

morocco_hammamFunction: gendered social space

Hammams are gendered spaces where being a woman or a man can make someone included or “other.” Therefore, they represent a very special departure from the public sphere in which one is physically exposed amongst other women or men. This declaration of sexuality merely by being nude makes hammams a site of gendered expression. One exception to this gender segregation is the presence of young boys who often accompany their mothers until they grow old enough to necessitate attending the male hammam with their fathers. The separation from the women’s hammam and entrance to the male hammam usually occurs at the age of 5 or 6.

As a primarily female space, women’s hammams play a special role in society. Valerie Staats finds that the women’s hammams of Morocco serve as a social space where traditional and modern women from urban and rural areas of the country come together, regardless of their religiosity, to bathe and socialise. While al-Ghazali and other Islamic intellectuals may have stipulated certain regulations for bathing, the regulations, being outdated and fundamental, are not usually upheld in the everyday interactions of Moroccans in the hammam. Staats argues that hammams are places where women can feel more at ease than they feel in many other public interactions. In addition, in his work “Sexuality in Islam,” Abdelwahab Bouhiba notes that some historians found evidence of hammams as spaces for sexual expression among women, which they believed was a result of the universality of nudity in these spaces.

Orientalism and representations of Turkish baths

gerome_baigneusesMoroccan and Arab hammams in general are not widely researched among Western scholars. In the writings that exist, the hammam is often portrayed to be a place of sexual looseness, inhibition and mystery. These Orientalist ideas paint the Arab “other” as mystical and sensuous, lacking morality in comparison to their Western counterparts. “Orientals” were seen as backward and opposite to western rationality.

Hammams in Morocco today

Tourism guides encourage tourists to visit traditional Moroccan baths as part of their visits to the country. Although hammams in certain communities are still widely used by locals, many of them have been subsumed by vibrant tourist economies that tout “Moroccan Turkish Baths” as part of an authentic tourist experience in the country. Hotels that cater to Westerners have begun creating their own hammam experience for customers, without the “hassle” of venturing into local cities.


hammam_aleppo_syriaHammam, Aleppo, Syria

An old legendary story says that Damascus once had 365 hammams or “Turkish baths”, one for each day of the year. Originally part of an ancient Roman tradition, hammams were absorbed by Islam to such an extent that many became almost annexes to nearby mosques. For centuries, hammams were an integral part of community life, with some 50 hammams surviving in Damascus until the 1950s. As of 2012, however, with the growth of modernisation programmes and home bathrooms, fewer than 20 Damascene working hamams had survived.

According to many historians, the northern city of Aleppo was home to 177 hammams during the medieval period until the Mongol invasion when many vital structures in the city were destroyed. Until 1970, around 40 hammams were still operating in the city. Nowadays, roughly 18 hammams are operating in the Ancient part of the city.

  • Hammam al-Sultan built in 1211 by Az-Zahir Ghazi.
  • Hammam al-Nahhaseen built during the 12th century near Khan al-Nahhaseen.
  • Hammam al-Bayadah of the Mamluk era built in 1450.
  • Hammam Yalbugha built in 1491 by the Emir of Aleppo Saif ad-Din Yalbugha al-Naseri.
  • Hammam al-Jawhary, Gammam Azdemir, Hammam Bahram Pasha, Hammam Bab al-Ahmar, etc.


Delhi, Hyderabad and Bhopal have multiple working Turkish Baths, which were started during the Mughal period in the early 16th century.


Lahore’s Shahi Hamam or Royal Bath House, located in the Walled City of Lahore , is one of the best preserved examples of a Mughal era Hamam. The Hamam was built in 1634 by the Mughal Governor of Lahore Hakim Ilmuddin Ansari, during the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan.

Introduction to Western Europe

hammam_londonTurkish bath in London

Turkish baths were introduced to the United Kingdom by David Urquhart, diplomat and sometime Member of Parliament for Stafford, who for political and personal reasons wished to popularise Turkish culture. In 1850, he wrote The Pillars of Hercules, a book about his travels in 1848 through Spain and Morocco. He described the system of dry hot-air baths used there and in the Ottoman Empire, which had changed little since Roman times. In 1856, Richard Barter read Urquhart’s book and worked with him to construct a bath. They opened the first modern Turkish bath at St Ann’s Hydropathic Establishment near Blarney, County Cork, Ireland. The following year, the first public bath of its type to be built in mainland Britain since Roman times was opened in Manchester, and the idea spread rapidly. It reached London in July 1860, when Roger Evans, a member of one of Urquhart’s Foreign Affairs Committees, opened a Turkish bath at 5 Bell Street, near Marble Arch.

During the following 150 years, over 600 Turkish baths opened in the country, including those built by municipal authorities as part of swimming pool complexes, taking advantage of the fact that water-heating boilers were already on site.

As of September 2013 there were just twelve Victorian-style Turkish baths remaining open in Britain, but hot-air baths still thrive in the form of the Russian steambath and the Finnish sauna. A few of Britain’s Turkish baths, while retaining their original decorative style, are now used for other purposes, such as day spas, restaurants and events venues.

Similar baths opened in other parts of the British Empire. Dr. John Le Gay Brereton, who had given medical advice to bathers in a Foreign Affairs Committee-owned Turkish bath in Bradford, travelled to Sydney, Australia, and opened a Turkish bath there on Spring Street in 1859, even before such baths had reached London. Canada had one by 1869, and the first in New Zealand was opened in 1874.

Urquhart’s influence was also felt outside the Empire when in 1861, Dr Charles H Shepard opened the first Turkish baths in the United States at 63 Columbia Street, Brooklyn Heights, New York, most probably on 3 October 1863. Before that, the United States, like many other places, had several Russian baths, one of the first being that opened in 1861 by M.Hlasko at his Natatorium at 219 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia.



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