Oriental associations of Turkish baths engage great attention for the travellers from all over the world.
In history, the different societies from different cultures frequently preferred taking a bath in public places like bath houses, lakes or even rivers. Although it was just a need rather than a social activity, some of them became a tradition and turned into a way of socialization as in Roman and Turkish baths.
In many ways, hammam can be considered as the continuation of Roman baths. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, their famous baths left unattended. At the same time on the other side of the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern countries of the former Roman rule made some modifications according to their own culture, beliefs and traditions and kept them alive.
Roman facilities were depending on still water. Pools and steam rooms were serving to mostly an elite social class. Slaves and common citizens had their own dedicated quarters.
For the Muslim society, on the other hand, still water was not clean enough for taking a bath. It had to be running water to remove the dirt away so they changed the process by focusing on running water and made them public for all ranks and classes of the community.
Water had a special meaning for the people of Anatolia rather than being just a vital life source used for drinking and cleaning. Turks originally had come from Central Asia where their belief system was based on Shamanism. According to the new settlers of Anatolia, water was one of the fundamental elements which creates life and it should have been respected.
When respecting water got together with Islamic order for being clean, Turkish people took hammam as a serious and prestigious business and carried it wherever they went.
Wikipedia has a short but interesting article about the Turkish Baths in the history of the other countries for those who want to learn more.
Turkish baths become popular places where people from different backgrounds can meet, improve social relations, share the latest news and have fun during Ottoman Empire.
Back on those days, socializing with others was an issue for women. They had to cover their bodies with long abayas when they are in public. There were no restaurants or cafes where they can spend some quality time with their friends.
Hammam was an exception like the privacy of homes. Cleaning up with hot, flowing water was a necessity and since women’s and men’s quarters were separated from each other, it was socially acceptable as well.
As an old Turkish idiom says: “water always finds its bed”. So do women! They broke the chains that keeps them away from social life by turning their bath sessions into an entertainment opportunity.
They were bringing home-made foods and musical instruments to women’s quarter. While oud and zither sounds fill the dome, women were singing their best songs and showing their belly dancing skills free from all social pressures of the community they were living in.
Turkish baths used to have an interesting role especially during Ottoman Empire when marriages were mostly prearranged.
When a boy grew old enough to start a family, it was time for parents’ involvement in searching the best possible bride for their sons. An ideal candidate should have had a good reputation, an equally social rank and the beauty.
Social rank and reputation were the easiest qualities to determine. The tricky part was the beauty because all nominees were wearing abayas covering their bodies.
A group of women from the groom side, leading by the mother, were going to hammam to see the future bride’s “inner” beauty. This was a common practice and held with the consensus of the both sides.
Quite a method for picking the right spouse, right?
Although social and cultural importance of traditional Turkish baths have been decreasing fast in modern Turkey, they are still an important part of regular cleaning routines for many people.
Some of my friends never miss a chance for hammam experience in Bodrum regardless of the season of the year. I can’t imagine how it is like to have a steam bath when outside temperature is above 40 degrees! But who can judge them after getting used to washing up in a Turkish bath for centuries?