A hamam is a public steam bath. Hamams were especially beloved in the Ottoman Empire, and they can be found in many parts of the Middle East today. Europeans were first introduced to the concept of the hamam in Turkey, which is why such baths are known as “Turkish baths” in many parts of the world. The hamam experience is quite unique, and well worth it if you happen to visiting a region which has a public hamam.
The Greeks and Romans had facilities similar to hamams; it is entirely possible that some cultural exchange occurred throughout the Mediterranean, spreading the concept of the hamam across several societies. There are four main sections of a hamam: a warming room, a hot room, a cold plunge, and a cooling room. People move through these rooms sequentially, cleaning themselves, sweating out toxins, and of course exchanging gossip and information with other bathers.
The hamam is far from just a place to get clean. It is also a place of ritual bathing, and a chance for social interaction for the bathers. In some regions of the Middle East, important events are still celebrated at the hamam; the gelim hammami, for example, is a visit to the hamam undertaken by brides before their weddings. Many rites of passage take place in the hamam, making it a central location in many communities. Private palaces and large homes also historically had their own hamams for the exclusive use of their residents.
As a general rule, hamams are segregated by gender, but people of all social statuses and classes are welcome. Men and women either attend at different hours or they enter separate baths. Once inside the hamam, people start by warming up in a warm steam room before moving to the hot room. After a session in the hot room, the bather undertakes a cold plunge and then exfoliates with the aid of a rough mitt. Many hamams also offer massage, and people may rub themselves with oils, depiliate, and perform other beauty tasks in the hamam.
After a cold plunge and massage, bathers move into a cooling room to neutralize their body temperatures before venturing into the outside world. At all stages of the process, people talk with each other and offer assistance with bathing tasks. Bath attendants are typically present to provide towels and other tools, along with massages. While in the hamam, many people wear traditional wooden sandals to keep their feet off the floor, and in some hamams people also wear wraps over their bodies.
Many hamams in the Middle East are quite beautiful. Some are ancient, providing a fascinating view into the history of Middle Eastern art and architecture. More modern hamams are often beautifully designed so that they have pride of place in their communities, and they may include landscaped grounds, spaces for meditation and prayer, and sometimes a restaurant which offers light snacks as well.