Archive photo of Hürrem Sultan Hammam, located between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It was commissioned by Hürrem Sultan, the wife of Süleyman the Magnificent, as a charitable work, and designed by the famous Ottoman Architect Sinan in 1556.

Top of the list of many visitors to Turkey is a trip to a hamam (Turkish bath), whilst to others it is a potentially terrifying experience. Turkish baths have long held a place in the history and culture of Turkey, and believe us when we say that no trip to Turkey is complete without a trip to a hamam.

First things first – some history… Modern day Turkish baths are descendents of Roman and Byzantine baths, and in most cases are the very same baths used by people in the Ottoman times. For the Ottomans, the hamam was about so much more than just body and soul – it was a place for social, and sometimes even business gatherings. In the case of the larger hamams, they were also a way for the Sultan of the day to flaunt his wealth, architectural might and leave behind a legacy. This is particularly evident in the larger Istanbul hamams where it is plain to see that no expense was spared with ornate tile work, lots of marble, and high domes and skylights.

It is traditional for men and women to bathe separately in a hamam, although sometimes these days, smaller Turkish baths in more cosmopolitan areas may combine the two. In Ottoman times, the baths were primarily a place for men, with one day a week for women if there was not a separate women’s area.

French painter Jean-Jacques-Francois Le Barbier’s depiction of Ottoman women at the hamam

For Ottoman women, the hamam was an important aspect of social rituals – this was where marriages were brokered and future daughters-in-law were subtly checked out. Before a woman’s wedding day, the bride to be would have a gathering of female friends and family at the hamam. This tradition is making a comeback, and if you are lucky you may spot a wedding group at the Turkish bath being entertained after their bath by musicians in the cooling down chamber of the building. So important was the hamam to Ottoman women, that even those women wealthy enough to have their own hamam, would usually spend at least one day a month at the public hamam so they didn’t miss out on the chance for news and socialising.  Back then, a visit could take almost all day, and would include food, music and possibly even dancing.  In fact, going to the hamam was so important for women back then, that if a women did not receive her allowance from her husband to go to the hamam it was actually recognised grounds for requesting a divorce!

While modern-day plumbing has changed the habits of Turkish people in regards to attendance at baths, today, many Turkish people still try to visit a hamam, and is generally something done with friends.

Most towns in Turkey have a hamam, although in less-touristy areas there may be specific times for men and women to visit, so it pays to check before you go. In Istanbul, the large hamams have separate men’s and women’s sections so just turning up is no problem. In some more touristy areas there may be a mixed hamam, so wearing a swimsuit is essential. If it is a segregated hamam you’ll be able to strip down to less in order to get maximum cleansing effect.

Most Turkish baths have several chambers of varying temperatures – a hot room, a warm room, and a cold room. The main chamber has a big marble slab (usually round) which is where all of the scrubbing action will take place.

Turkish men and tourists enjoy a traditional bath in the historic Cemberlitas Hamami in Istanbul, Turkey, Tuesday, April. 27, 2010. Cemberlitas Hamami is one of the oldest Turkish Baths in Istanbul, dating back to the late 16th century, and was built by the famous architect Sinan. (AP Photo/Ibrahim Usta)

When you arrive you will be given a cotton wrap called a peştemal (pronounced PESH-teh-mal), some rubber slippers, and a kese (scrubbing mitt).  Once you’ve stripped down to your underwear or swimsuit and wrapped up in the pestemal and put your slippers on, you’re ready to enter the hot room where you will lie on the marble slab to steam in preparation for your scrub down by the hamam attendant. You’ll get best results if you can steam for at least 10 minutes before the scrub, so don’t be anxious if you are left alone when you first lie down.

After you have had a good steam, a hamam attendant will then signal you to come over for your scrub down – an experience that can for a moment or two, feel a little overwhelming as they go about scrubbing you and turning you in a very business like manner. You may feel a little like a piece of wood being sanded, and this is not far from the truth  as the top layer or layers of built up dead skin are being removed. They will then give you a massage using luxuriously foamy olive oil soap, and then rinse you down. The mountain of foam is one of the highlights of the experience as it feels incredibly luxurious. You are welcome to stay on the marble stone and steam a little more, although generally the time spent already is enough. We recommend having a cup of tea, and perhaps some water immediately afterwards, then it is back to the change room to get dressed, and then you will float on out of there, feeling incredibly refreshed and generally amazing.

The ritual of hamam bathing is not to be rushed, and incredibly luscious, making our daily showers pale in comparison.  Although it may at first seem intimidating, don’t miss out on the chance to visit a hamam when you visit Turkey – it’s an experience to remember.

If you are want to try a hamam for yourself, we can help you book a visit to one in Istanbul, or ask your friendly tour guide for a recommend.