Evolving from Roman origins, the traditions around hammams are found across various Islamic countries in the Middle East and beyond. Elaborate designs and ornate decorations are common for hammams, with many ancient palaces having such rooms within their walls. The Alhambra in Granada, Spain, is one of the most beautiful buildings in the the world, and has a superb example of a hammam with impressive ceiling decorations and coloured tiles.
Hammams remain popular today, and are often attached to spas and pools, and it’s in Istanbul that you will find some of the best working examples of traditional bathhouses. There is less formality here, with both locals and tourists using the facilities.
Cleanliness is an important element of Islamic culture, with certain washing rituals needing to be performed before praying at home or in a mosque. As such, you will often find hammams in Islamic countries close to places of worship.
The experience is well known for the bubble massage element that feels as refreshing as it looks, but there’s a lot more to the hammam ritual that helps to relax and cleanse you when you visit. The hammam rooms in Istanbul and the rest of Turkey are heated by marble slabs known as göbek taşı (tummy stones).
When you first arrive, you will be asked to wait in a lounge before being taken to a private room to change and lock up any valuables. For larger establishments, it is advised to book in advance and reserve a time slot to ensure you get the service you want.
Once you have your peştemal (towel) you will usually enter via a sıcaklık (hot room). Various water basins and showers are found here and you are expected to soak and get wet before lying down on one of the heated stones before your practitioner arrives. Female attendants are known as natır, whereas male masseurs are called tellak.
The rough-looking kese (scrubbing mitten) might seem intimidating, but its actually ideal for scrubbing the skin. Don’t worry about the various terms being used. You aren’t expected to know them all, and you will be guided throughout the entire process.
Now comes the fun part – mountains of bubbles being poured over you! The köpük process is a wash and massage that can take up to 30 minutes. Scented candles are used in some spas, as well as essential oils.
There is a wide choice of Turkish baths in Istanbul. Some have links to older Roman spas, whereas others have traditional Islamic architecture. If you’re staying at a hotel in the city, it’s worth checking if there is a hammam on-site. These are often more private and are usually reserved for guests of the hotel, so are a good way to try out the experience before braving a public bath.
It’s also well worth visiting some of the historical baths in Istanbul, if only to admire the incredible architecture and design. If you’re not sure about conversing with the attendants in Turkish, pick a larger establishment, where you will be guided through each step of your visit in English.