The Sultan Amir Ahmad hammam in Iran

Hammams: History, Use, and Cultural Significance

Inside a Turkish hammam. credit@

One of the oldest traditions to survive to date, hammams are basically bathhouses mostly associated with Islamic regions. Spread all over the world, hammams do not just serve as a place for cleansing, but also as social centers where people can meet and greet. Here, I will explore the history and significance of hammams in the world.

History: Ancient period to the contemporary era

Hammam Essalhine: A Roman bathhouse still in use after 2,000 years in Algeria
Hammam Essalhine: A Roman bathhouse still in use after 2,000 years in Algeria. credit@ Vintage News Daily

The hammam’s origins go back to the days of the Roman Empire and the Hellenistic era. For the Greeks, cleansing and washing was an important routine, so the local bathhouses saw a steady stream of citizens during the week. When the Arab Muslims took over the region during the 7th and 8th centuries, the local bathhouses proved extremely popular with them too. This was mostly because their religion required them to perform ablutions before prayer and Islam placed a general emphasis on both physical and spiritual cleanliness.

Ancient Umayyad baths
Ancient Umayyad baths. credit@ OpenEdition Journals

The earliest known hammams of the Islamic world were built during the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) in Syria. These hammams were part of the desert castles and palaces. After this period, much of the Muslim world adopted the use of hammams and they appeared far and wide. Archaeological records show that hammams came to be in Volubilis, Morocco, Cordoba, and other al-Andalus cities throughout the 7th and 8th centuries. Two centuries later, bathhouses and hot springs were used in Iran not just for cleansing, but also for therapeutic purposes.

In the 11th century, the Byzantine Empire fell under Seljuk rule, and till the 15th century, it was war, competition, and then, eventually, peace, trade, and alliance. During all these centuries, there was a tremendous intermixing of Islamic, Persian, Eastern Roman, and Turkish cultures and each of these cultures had a great influence over one another. Hammams were built not just as bathhouses, but as a place for socializing as well. When the Ottomans came to the region later, they became patrons of the hammams. Keeping in mind its relevance as a social center, hammams were built in all the cities of the Asian, African, and European territories of the Ottoman Empire. And so, the Ottoman rulers are credited for introducing hammams in eastern and central Europe. Many of these ancient bathhouses exist today- some undergoing restoration while others lie in disrepair. Turkish bathhouses can be found in Hungary and Greece, while many Ottoman bathhouses stand in Edirne and Bursa, Eastern Europe, and Anatolia. In Constantinople, the hammams increased in number as well as spectacular design due to the royal patrons and the access to water.

Hammam al Jadid, the largest Ottoman hammam in Libya.
Hammam al Jadid, the largest Ottoman hammam in Libya. credit@ Wikipedia

The Greek inhabitants of the cities upheld the Eastern Roman bath culture. The Baths of Zeuxippus are a major example. The Ottoman architects drew inspiration from the earlier Byzantine designers and built hammams with well-balanced designs, regularity in arrangement, and greater symmetry. Some of the oldest hammams, resembling monuments, are the Tahtakale Hamam (believed to be built right after 1454), the Mahmut Pasha Hamam (built in 1466), and the Bayezid II Hamam (built between 1500 and 1507). The 16th century Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan designed some of the monumental bathhouses, such as the Çemberlitaş Hamam, the Süleymaniye Hamam (in the complex of the Süleymaniye Mosque), and the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamam. The designs of these hammams also served as an inspiration for the later bathhouses that cropped up during Ottoman rule.

In 1768, Sultan Mustafa III (ruler of the Ottoman Empire from 1757 to 1774) ordered that the construction of new public hammams be stopped. This led to a significant increase in the number of private bathhouses built by the rich and elite class of the city. Most of these bathhouses appeared in the suburbs of the Bosphorus where the wealthy had their comfort homes built. In Iran, many of the spectacular hammams that have survived to date are from the Safavid period (16th to 18th century) and these can be seen dotting the historic city of Isfahan. When Muslim rule expanded to the Indian subcontinent, hammams cropped up and many of those that survive today are of Mughal architecture (16th to 19th century).

The Shahi Hammam is a Persian-style bath which was built in Lahore in 1635 C.E. during the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan.
The Shahi Hammam is a Persian-style bath which was built in Lahore in 1635 C.E. during the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan. credit@ Archnet

Until the 20th century, public bathhouses were an important part of the urban life of the Muslim world. Beyond this period, private homes enabled indoor plumbing and they built private hammams, which led to many questioning the necessity and hygiene of public hammams. So, the number and use of public hammams have declined in many cultures. The hammams were either demolished, abandoned, or converted into other cultural venues or commercial buildings. In Istanbul and Macedonia, many were converted into art galleries or museums.

The building of private bathhouses in Turkey led to the neglect of public historical bathhouses. While many remained abandoned or converted, the neglected ones were later renovated and opened for both locals and tourists. In Morocco, the most popular and historic cities, like Marrakesh and Fes, continued to operate their hammams. The hammams in these cities were especially useful for the poor residents. However, in many other regions, the hammams have become obsolete. In Iran, historical cities like Isfahan continued to operate their hammams for not just cleansing, but also for religious functions. Overall, there was a decline in the number of bathhouses, with many being converted to tea houses and restaurants.

The Traditional Hammam-e Vakil in Kerman, Iran - goingiran
The Hammam-e Vakil in Iran now functions as a tea house. credit@ goingIran

In the city of Damascus in Syria, only 13 hammams were functioning when a count was taken in 2004. Cairo, the bustling city of Egypt, had 77 hammams in operation during the beginning of the 19th century, only to decline to a mere 8 in the early 21st century. The former European territories of the Ottoman Empire, like the Balkans and Greece, saw many of their hammams become neglected and defunct. But recent times have seen these renovated and converted to cultural centers and historical monuments.

The general design of hammams

While designing and constructing a hammam, it combines the structure and functionality of the early Roman baths with the traditions of Islam, such as steam bathing, cleansing for rituals, and respect for water. Other than building public bathhouses like the Greeks and Romans, Islamic hammams were often built as extensions of mosques. The mosques themselves were part of larger complexes that acted as both centers of worship and community centers.

While variations in design popped up across regions and cultures, there was a general layout to all the hammams. The architectural principles of the bathhouses were pretty much similar. The design was such that there was a regular sequence of rooms that the visitors entered in the same order. First comes the undressing or changing room, then the cold room, the warm room, and finally, the hot room. These were the main chambers of a hammam.

The domed ceiling with holes
The domed ceiling with holes credit@ Pinterest

The chambers were covered in domed or vaulted ceilings, which gives the visitors a view of the urban skyline. The steam and hot rooms had their domes pierced with skylights or small holes. These holes served two functions- one, they provided natural lighting during the daytime, and two, the excess steam escaped from the room through these holes. The walls and ceilings were built of steam-proof materials like marble or varnished plaster. Out of the entire complex, the changing room or vestibule is usually one of the most decorated rooms. It often has a central fountain and benches. The Ottoman baths had their changing rooms built with multi-level wooden galleries which took visitors to smaller changing rooms. Toilets were built within the complex. A majority of the historic hammams drew inspiration from the Roman hypocaust system for heating. There was a service room (at a lower level than the steam rooms) behind the walls of the hot room where several furnaces were located. Water was heated in the furnaces and then delivered to the steam rooms. Simultaneously, the smoke and hot air produced when the furnaces are heated are channeled through conduits and pipes beneath the floor of the steam rooms, hence heating the rooms prior to rising through walls and out of the chimneys. As long as the hammams remained open, there was a constant need for hot water, so the furnaces were kept burning at all functioning hours. While wood was the primary material for fuel, hammams in Damascus and Morocco used recycled materials from factories like wood shavings from workshops and olive pits from olive presses.

Services inside a hammam

Hammams are built for both women and men. While some are built separately, other hammams serve both women and men, but at separate times. On several occasions, the hammams are transformed into places of entertainment (like dancing and food) and ceremonies like public holidays, weddings, beauty trips, and celebrating the birth of a newborn.

Inside the steam room of a Turkish hammam.
Inside the steam room of a Turkish hammam. credit@ Conde Nast Traveller India

Upon entering a hammam, the first step is to undress in the changing room. Most hammams make it customary for visitors to cover the lower part of their body with a loincloth. A peştemal (a silk or cotton towel to cover the body) is provided. By proceeding from the cold room to the hot room, perspiration is induced. The hot room may have several sections, like the heated marble platforms and water basins. After heating and sweating in the hot room for around ten minutes, an attendant (matching the gender of the visitor) comes to help wash and scrub the visitor. The attendant comes armed with soap and kese (a mitten for scrubbing the skin) for a vigorous scrubbing session. After the scrubbing, the visitor is washed with water.

Scrubbing. credit@ Beauty Nigeria
The attendant washes the visitor after scrubbing
The attendant washes the visitor after scrubbing credit@ MarocMama
A bubble bath after the scrubbing in hammam
A bubble bath after the scrubbing. credit@ RobesNMore
The pool inside a Moroccan hammam.
The pool inside a Moroccan hammam. credit@ Ansamed

Till the scrubbing and washing, all hammams operate on the same principles. But some variations occur according to the place. While the whole process is over with the washing in many hammams, others may have pools where the visitor can immerse themselves in water and relax for a while. It is a bubble bath followed by a massage. A special cloth is lathered with soap which the attendant will squeeze over the visitor’s body. They then proceed with a gentle massage. After the skincare is done, next comes a hair wash. A quick shampoo is followed by a head massage. More water is poured onto the head until it is completely clean. Although the entire ritual is done, visitors can choose to stay a while longer in the lounge just to relax and chat with the locals.

In modern hammams, various accessories from the Roman period are used. Some of these are the peştemal, Nalin (wooden shoes to avoid slipping on the floor), kese and often jewelry boxes, mirrors, henna bowls, gilded soapboxes, and perfume bottles.

Significance of hammams in Islamic culture

In Islam, ablutions have to be performed before prayer. There are two kinds of ablutions- ghusl, which is a full-body cleansing, and the wudu, which means cleansing the face, hands and feet. While there are areas provided by mosques for washing, the hammams located near the mosques are used by those who wish to perform a full body wash. The hammams in Morocco particularly made use of the Roman designs to adapt to the needs of Islamic purification. The hammams were built with pools for full submersion of the body. However, this led to the question of hygiene and many preferred to bathe under running water.

The hammam inside the Hassan II Mosque in Morocco.
The hammam inside the Hassan II Mosque in Morocco. credit@ View From Fez

In Islam, the hammam serves several functions. Besides providing a space for performing ablutions before prayer, it provided a place for general hygiene, social functions for the community, and as a meeting place for women and men. Conservative countries denied women the right to gather in public places to socialize. The hammams helped to turn this around. Women could gather away from the eyes of men and socialize. Thus, hammams have attained a prominent role in the lives of Muslim women as they grant privacy and a certain amount of freedom. Since the visitors are mostly nude inside the hammams, they also became a place for gender expression. During the early periods when hammams gained popularity with the expansion of Muslim rule, many scholars criticized the use of public bathhouses. They claimed that the hammams could become the site for illicit sexual activities.

Hammams may either be privately owned or extensions of palaces and mansions. In many scenarios, they served as charitable institutions which were part of a much bigger complex. Waqf agreements ( involving donating a building, land, or other assets for Muslim religious or charitable purposes with no intention of reclaiming the assets) govern these complexes and the hammams were a source of revenue for maintaining the complex and mosques.

Current scenario

Hammams are one of the best places that exemplify the religious and social sphere of a region. Although the roots of hammams lie in ancient times, modern hammams have evolved by integrating both traditional and modern aspects. While maintaining authenticity by using similar techniques and products, modern luxurious facilities are now employed. Hammams in the modern period provide spa services from other cultures, like customized hair treatments and facials. Today, hammams are a blend of the traditional and modern.

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