The word, “hamam”, originating from the Arabic hamma (means “heating up”), means steam bath and is based on the heating of cold water. Baths served as health centres among the ancient Greeks and have been an important part of daily life in Istanbul since Roman and Byzantine times. Under the Romans, Byzantine baths were more than places to wash, but social clubs where people met their friends and conversed or argued over politics. In Central Asia, the Turkic people had steam baths, which they called “Manchu”. Bringing their Asian tradition with them, they merged it with the Roman bath culture they found in Anatolia, and a new synthesis was born, the “Turkish bath.” With their traditions, associated beliefs, and philosophy of life, baths became an institution, which spread throughout Anatolia. Although the Turkish bath employed the same kind of heating system as the earlier Roman one, it is dissimilar in many ways. The Turkish bath consists of three sections: the cool room (soğukluk), the tepidity room (ılıklık), and the hottest room (sıcaklık or harrare). Double Turkish baths had separate sections for men and women, whereas single baths would accommodate women on certain days and hours.
In the early Ottoman period, Turkish baths were built not only in the cities of Iznik and Bursa, but also in complexes outside of the cities, where trading took place. Upon the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror built nineteen baths in Istanbul, five of them quite large in size. The Ottomans developed Byzantine market places and built their hamams in those areas. The first Ottoman bath in the city was known as the Irgat Bath. During the Ottoman period, baths were often built as part of large religious charity complexes (külliye) that could include a mosque, hospital, soup kitchen, library, school, and lodgings for students or clerics. The income from these baths, which were sponsored by foundations headed by the sultan, members of the royal family, or other leading figures in the Ottoman Empire, would be used to maintain the mosque or other buildings in the complex. It has been documented that in the 16th century, empire officials used their personal wealth to build these charitable institutions. The Ottomans not only built baths in the capital of Istanbul but also constructed countless baths across the wide sweep of their empire. Examples of Ottoman baths in various states of disrepair can be found in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, with the western most Ottoman hamam being in the Hungarian city of Peçuy. In the 17th century, Turkish traveler and writer, Evliya Çelebi recorded that there were 151 hamams in Istanbul alone.
The imperial palaces and pavilions, Istanbul’s waterside residences, and the stately mansions in provincial cities and towns also had their own private baths, which were usually located at the end of a greenhouse-like passageway filled with flowers, connecting the house and the garden. Bathers went to and from the bath through this flower-lined passage. It was traditional to consume fruit, lemonade and various fruit juices and sherbets in the bath.
The Turkish bath as a social institution played an important role both in the socialization and segregation of Ottoman men and women (in a manner comparable to the harem). Public baths were located in the cities, towns and in some villages, and were open to everyone. As a public space where social status was relatively fluid and open to negotiation, it helped to sustain the Ottoman Empire for many centuries. Baths have played a much more meaningful role in the social lives of women than those of men. Contrary to male bath traditions, women attended the baths in groups. The preparations carried out before going to the bath were also a social activity in and of themselves, which further reflected the social activity in the bath. All the items used in the activities that went on in the bath were carefully prepared. Every woman had 13 or 14 different bathing accessories, examples of which are virtual works of art today, and an indication to us of how rich Turkish bath culture was. Every family had a pair of ‘bath bowls’ in keeping with its taste and degree of wealth, the larger one for the men, the smaller for the women. Bath bowls came in several varieties: fat and round bowls of silver, bronze or copper, decorated with reliefs, inlays or fish. The soap dish was a lidded container with a handle on top, oval-shaped, with holes in the bottom like a sieve. Soap, combs, and rubbing and lathering mitts were placed inside it. There was also a metal container in the shape of a pumpkin for keeping jewelry after getting undressed in the bath. Bath mirrors meanwhile were oval or round with wooden or silver frames. The bath clogs (nalın) that were worn on the feet were carved out of wood in special shapes and decorated using various techniques. Being quite high off the floor, they ensured that the bather’s feet never came into contact with the soapy water. Bath clogs with silver bells accompanied the sashaying bodies of the young women with a pleasing tinkle. The most sought-after combs, whether coarse- or fine-toothed, were those made of ivory, which were plated with silver and gold. Thin bath towels (pestamal) were woven in plaid designs. They were adorned with various types of embroidery. The highest-quality towels were woven in Bursa.
Parties held at the baths became important events, for example: the bridal bath ceremony, which was held one day before wedding festivities commenced; the forty-day bath, which marked the fortieth day following the birth of a child; the tear-drying bath, attended by all relatives and friends of the deceased twenty days after her death; the votary bath, held when a person’s wish was fulfilled; the guest bath, to which the hostess invited her friends and relatives to meet a special visitor; and the holiday bath, which was taken on the eve of religious holidays.