Bathing Ottoman style
Hundreds of hamams were built in Istanbul after the conquest for private use in palaces, the mansions of the wealthy and for the general public throughout the various districts of the city.
For centuries, very few Ottoman Turks had running water in their houses. Only the very wealthy could afford it, although, this was true all over the world. In order to get clean, you had to use buckets filled with water or go to your neighborhood hamam.
For Muslims, water is critical for the ablutions they perform before prayer services in addition to its importance in everyday life. Even more important, the water has to be flowing as it does in a fountain or from a tap, not standing still in a pool. The Greeks and the Romans developed the concept of the bath, which incorporated pools, while the Muslims of the Middle East adapted these baths into hamams.
The Turks, upon entering Anatolia, brought with them the concept of the hamam, which offered cold, warm and hot experiences. The first known Ottoman mosque was in Bursa, built by Sultan Murat I (r. 1361-1389) on the site of a Byzantine thermal bath. It consisted of an entrance hall, tepidarium (cooling room) and a hot room, a basic blueprint for hamams that would continue to be used until the 18th Century.
Hamams built for private use
Hundreds of hamams were built in Istanbul after the conquest for private use in palaces, the mansions of the wealthy and for the general public throughout the various districts of the city. The 17th Century travel writer Evliya Çelebi wrote about how hamams were built and distributed throughout the old city after the conquest so that the people would have a place to wash themselves as Islam required and the expense of repairing them were undertaken by Fatih Sultan Mehmed. In his own time, Çelebi (1611 – 1682) noted that there were 4,536 private hamams and 300 public hamams.
The harem at Topkapı Palace alone had nine hamams for instance. In some instances building a hamam was perceived as being a work of charity. Many of the hamams were built either directly adjoining a mosque or were located nearby. These complemented the fountains in the courtyards of the mosque so that a Muslim could purify himself before praying. For instance the hamam built by Haseki Hürrem Sultan, the wife of Kanuni Sultan Suleyman, was built halfway between Aya Sofia and Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Sultan Bayezid Hamam that is currently being restored by the University of Istanbul is within the area covered by the mosque that bears the same name and was part of the complex built around it. Toward the end of the 19th Century only 130 of these hamams remained open.
Going to a hamam in Ottoman times was not just thought of as a way to get clean, but also to engage in a social experience, especially where women were concerned. The men in their separate section probably did whatever men do when they get together like gossip or conduct business. The women of a household had a chance to get out and meet other women. Young children would also accompany them. According to descriptions, the occasion was rather like a picnic with the women providing various dishes like börek and dolma. It wasn’t just a matter of bathing and getting a massage; singing, dancing and gossiping would help the women to while away a few hours. It was also a chance for the women to slyly examine the young girls who were coming of marriageable age, compare them and consider them as possible mates for their own sons.
In one of the letters that Lady Mary Wortley-Montague wrote in 1717 from Edirne, she describes her extraordinary experience in a hamam as follows:
“I went to the bagnio at about ten o’clock. It was already full of women. It is built of stone, in the shape of a dome, with no windows but [the one] in the roof, which gives light enough. There were five of these domes joined together, the outmost being less than the rest and serving only as a hall, where the portress stood at the door. Ladies of quality generally give this woman a crown or ten shillings; and I did not forget that ceremony. I was in my travelling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them. Yet there was not one of them that showed the least surprise or impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court, where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to such a stranger. I believe, upon the whole, there were two hundred women, and yet none of those disdainful smiles and satirical whispers that never fail [to arise] in our assemblies when someone appears who is not dressed exactly in the fashion. They repeated over and over to me: ‘Uzelle, pek uzelle,’ which is nothing but ‘Charming, very charming.’ —— The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies; and on the second their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed. Yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them. They walked and moved with the same majestic grace, which Milton describes our general mother with. There were many amongst them, as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess was drawn by the pencil of a Guido or Titian, — and most of their skins shiningly white, only adorned by their beautiful hair divided into many tresses, hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or ribbon, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces.”
Wortley-Montague continued her description of her hamam experience: “I was here convinced of the truth of a reflection I have often made. That if it were the fashion to go naked the face would be hardly observed. I perceived, that the ladies of the most delicate skins and finest shapes had the greatest share of my admiration, though their faces were sometimes less beautiful than those of their companions. To tell you the truth, I had wickedness enough to wish secretly that Mr. Gervais could have been there invisible. I fancy it would have very much improved his art to see 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 (generally pretty girls of seventeen or eighteen) were employed in braiding their hair in several pretty fancies. In short, ‘tis the women’s coffee-house, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented. 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 cold room, which was very surprising to me.”
Book on hamams
Many hamams remain in Istanbul today. A book about hamams was released just this year by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s division, Culture Inc., entitled “Istanbul’un 100 Hamamı.” Researcher and writer Akif Kuruçay identifies Istanbul’s historic hamams which have continued to exist in spite of the ravages of time, the destructive speed of modern life, disinterested policies and insensitivity.