Almost everybody in the West is familiar with the concept of the “sauna”, and it’s probably safe to say that most people have experienced a traditional Nordic steam room at least once in their lives – but what about a “Turkish sauna”?
These often-opulent bathhouses are far removed from the cozy, wooden rooms that originated in Finland, but for spa aficionados, it’s an experience that’s not to be missed. And for those who want to know more, here are 13 facts about Turkish saunas.
If you want an idea of what a traditional Turkish massage can look like, you can also check out this video before reading on.
Turkish Sauna (Hammam Bath)
1. Where do they come from?
Turkish baths are direct descendants of Greco-Roman thermae, which were then adapted to the needs of Muslims with the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries.
In Ancient Rome, people didn’t bathe for just hygiene reasons – although it served that purpose too. Bathing also had an important social function, with people meeting and chatting with friends or associates in the comfortable surroundings of the bathhouse.
In Islam, ritual ablutions are required before prayer, and part of the popularity of Roman-style bathhouses was due to this need. However, there was undoubtedly always a social aspect too.
After the decline of the Roman Empire, fewer baths were being built, but in the centuries that followed, new ones began to appear in areas like the Middle East and North Africa as Islam continued to spread.
With the rise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 13th century, they began to be constructed in increasing numbers throughout central and eastern Europe, which has contributed to them being known as “Turkish baths” in English.
2. Origins of the name
The Turkish sauna – or “Turkish bath” – is known as a hammam in Arabic, which can mean “bath”, “bathhouse” or “swimming pool”. This was passed into the Turkish language as hamam.
Some other European languages have borrowed the Arabic or Turkish version of the word (French uses hammam), but in English, they are usually referred to as “Turkish baths”.
This term is first known from 1644 and probably gained popularity due to the later phenomenon of the “Victorian Turkish bath” that began in England and then spread throughout the British Empire.
The word sauna is an old Finnish word describing the Finnish/Nordic style of sauna and is unrelated to the concept of hammam. This means the term “Turkish sauna” is not correct – although it is still sometimes used descriptively.
3. How did Turkish baths differ from their Roman predecessors?
Turkish baths followed the general plan of Roman baths and consisted of a changing room, a cold room, a warm room and a hot room.
However, in Roman thermae, it was usual to immerse oneself in a cold pool after visiting the hot room, but this was seen as undesirable for Muslims ritually purifying themselves before prayer.
The result was that the cold pool was replaced by running water in most regions.
4. Did women use baths or just men?
Women were also allowed to use the baths, but the sexes were strictly segregated.
When the baths were smaller, this would mean having separate times when men and women could use the baths. However, in larger complexes, there were different sections so men and women could bathe at the same time without coming into contact with each other.
This meant that in many areas, baths became places where women could go to relax and talk to other women without the pressures, requirements and restraints that existed in other environments.
5. What happens in a Turkish bath?
On entering the changing room, the bather strips down, keeping on just a loincloth. Women often also wear a kind of shawl on the top part of their bodies.
The bather then continues into the hammam through the progressively hotter rooms. Once in the hot room, the bather is scrubbed with soap by an attendant. The bather then finishes the wash themselves by rinsing off with running water.
In smaller hammams, the changing room and the cold room may be combined, and can also be a place to drink tea or coffee and to chat with other patrons.
Massages are also offered and are carried out as required by the hammam attendants who wash visitors.
6. The first modern Turkish baths in the West – some important dates
The concept of the Turkish-style bath spread to Western Europe in the mid-18th century as a form of heat and steam therapy.
The first one, built in 1856, was constructed in Blarney, Country Cork, in Ireland. Following this, the first one in mainland Britain – and the first Roman-style bath complex built in Britain since the fall of the Roman Empire – opened in Manchester in 1857.
The first one in London appeared in 1860, with many more popping up throughout the British Empire – for example, in Australia, Canada and New Zealand – in the following years.
The first one in the United States was built in 1861 in New York.
A complex was also built in Germany, in Baden-Baden, in 1877. These baths are still in use today.
Since those days, however, they have fallen out of favor somewhat. Almost all of them have now closed down, and only a handful remain in operation. This is largely due to the popularity of Finnish-style saunas, which are easier to build and maintain.
7. What’s the difference between a Turkish bath and a Nordic sauna?
Although both treatments are based around inducing sweat as a way of relaxing and cleansing the body, saunas and Turkish baths are quite different.
If you’ve ever tried a Nordic sauna, you’ll no doubt recall sitting in a small, dimly lit room full of steam and perhaps nearly unbearable heat. Most people will also remember the unmistakable woody smell that adds so much to the experience.
Since Nordic saunas are small, you usually go in alone or with just a few other people. The heat can be intense, and most people don’t stay inside for more than about ten minutes.
After coming out, following Finnish tradition, many people like to immerse themselves in a pool of cold water – and some people then repeat the process several times.
A Turkish bath, on the other hand, is much larger, and visiting one is a more languid activity to which you can easily devote several hours.
There are usually several rooms where you can sit and soak in the heat. In traditional Turkish baths, you will also have the opportunity to be washed or massaged by the staff.
Another important difference is the temperature and intensity. As we mentioned, Nordic saunas tend to be very hot, but even the hottest part of a Turkish bath is much cooler than a regular sauna.
Rather, they tend to concentrate on inducing sweating through higher humidity, which makes the whole experience more mellow and relaxing than a Nordic sauna.
Again, this makes a Turkish bath something to relax and enjoy – unlike a sauna, which can be an ordeal to withstand for some people.
8. Are modern Turkish baths still unisex?
The answer to this question depends on where the bath is.
If you go to a Turkish bath in the US or Western Europe, it may well be part of a larger spa complex, and the traditional rules of keeping men and women separate may not apply.
In that case, you can just expect to wear your regular bathing costume and share the facilities with bathers of both sexes.
However, baths like this are not especially traditional or authentic and may not offer the complete range of services like washing or massages.
Instead, they are designed to offer visitors a taste of Turkish baths along with the associated health benefits without the cultural aspects of the experience.
However, if you travel to countries with traditions of using Turkish-style baths, such as Turkey itself, you will find that the traditional gender segregation is very much in place – as you would expect.
That said, some hammams, especially those aimed more at tourists, offer services for couples, allowing you to go in with your partner.
9. Do you have to be cleaned and massaged?
If you don’t like the idea of being scrubbed and massaged by the hammam staff, you don’t have to since self-service bathhouses also exist.
In a self-service hammam, you take your own soap, towel and other items and do everything yourself. This also has the advantage of being the cheapest option.
However, if you want to go to a Turkish bath – and especially if you do it in Turkey – you’re recommended to try the traditional option at least once.
It may be more expensive, and some people might decide it’s not for them – but it’s best to sample the traditional experience with a wash and massage because then you can make up your own mind about what you think.
10. What are the health benefits of Turkish baths?
The benefits of bathing in hot water, soaking in natural springs and sitting in hot, steam-filled rooms have been appreciated for millennia by many cultures, including the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Japanese, the Nordic peoples, the Russians and many more.
Visiting a Turkish bath can help you relax, relieving stress, while the vigorous wash you receive also serves as an effective exfoliation, leaving your skin looking visibly healthier.
If you opt for a massage, you will find it deep and firm, which for beginners can be a little uncomfortable. However, it’s great for your joints and muscles, and you will feel invigorated when it’s over.
However, a trip to a hammam may or may not offer some of the other supposed health benefits associated with saunas or infrared sauna blankets such as reducing toxins, increasing metabolism or reducing body fat.
11. Do you need to tip?
If you’re visiting a traditional hammam in Turkey, you will be expected to tip. This means you should make sure you have some cash with you and expect to leave around 10-20% of what you paid for the services.
12. Where’s the best place to enjoy a traditional Turkish bath?
As we mentioned, Turkish bath complexes can be found in the Western world, but for the most authentic experience, you should try to visit one in a place where they have been a traditional part of the local culture for many centuries.
Of course, if you visit Turkey itself, this would be the ideal place to try it out.
Cities like Istanbul have plenty of tourist-friendly hammams where you won’t feel completely bewildered the moment you step through the door – but for the more intrepid, visiting a bathhouse frequented by locals will give you the most authentic experience of all.
However, other countries also have similar traditions of bathing, particularly those that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire.
For example, Greece and Morocco are two other places where you can enjoy a traditional hammam – although you may find certain details and practices vary slightly.
13. Etiquette inside the hammam
For Westerners visiting a hammam for the first time, the whole process can be a little disconcerting – and one of the most important things to understand is the etiquette of getting naked.
For men, you will be given a cloth to preserve your modesty, but this is usually worn without underwear. However, it’s not the done thing to let it all hang out, so make sure you keep covered up.
Women are given something similar for “downstairs” but usually leave their underwear on beneath the cloth. They will also receive a kind of shawl, which is used to cover the top half of the body. Removing the bra is optional.
Step back in time and enjoy the indulgent relaxation of a hammam
Unlike Nordic saunas, Turkish baths are gentle, relaxing places (apart from the massage!) where you can while away a couple of hours and feel the stresses of your daily life simply dissipate with the steam.
For those lucky enough to sample an authentic hammam in Turkey itself, the first visit can be daunting – but once you know how everything works, it’s an experience to remember, and one you’ll probably find yourself looking forward to repeating at the earliest possible opportunity.