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The Hamam: culture and leisure

A visit to a hamam, a traditional Turkish bathhouse, is an absolute must for visitors to Istanbul. Immerse yourself literally and figuratively in Turkish culture and history with a centuries old bath ritual and the beautiful mosaic decor. After a treatment with olive soap, mud and a few camel hair wash cloths you leave with silky soft skin.

Anybody who is unfamiliar with the hamam rituals can visit a bathhouse that caters more to foreigners. The masseurs at these hamams work according to more Western standards. A visit to these hamams is more expensive but most visitors feel it is certainly worth it. The hamams frequented by locals tend to be less gentle in their treatments, especially when it comes to massages. Just like the traditional hamams, the ‘Western’ bathhouses usually have a separate area for men and women. You will often find a charming cafe and shop on the premises.

The bath ritual

Taking a bath in a hamam is an important part of Turkish culture. The hamam treatment cleanses both the body and soul. Therefore, Turkish people visit the hamam as a spiritual preparation for a visit to a mosque. The body is cleansed through sweating and scrubbing. Water washes away everything, and in a spiritual sense also.

A visit to the hamam is a ritual and features prominently in many important moments in life. Brides will be bathed to prepare for their wedding ceremony and there is a separate ritual for women who have just given birth. Men and women bathe separately – the larger bathhouses have separate areas for men and women, the smaller ones have different opening hours for men and women.

Ritual cleansing in the hamam

Lathering up, scrubbing and massaging

A hamam consists of 3 separate areas – the further in you go, the hotter it gets. From the ‘camekan’, the dressing room, you walk through the ‘soğukluk’, the warm room, to the heart of the hamam. This is the ‘hararet’, a large dome-shaped steam room. It is here, in the most beautiful part of the bathhouse, that the bathing ritual and massages take place. The central point in the hararet is a large marble slab which is heated by a fire underneath the stone; this is where you will lie down. After sweating for a while, you will be lathered up with soap. This is followed by a rinse and scrubbing. Then you are rewarded with a delicious massage. Sometimes the massage is so thorough that the masseurs will even stand on your back - this may sound extreme but afterwards you will feel wonderfully loose and relaxed.

Conclude with a massage
The Cağaloğlu Hamam

The most beautiful hamams

The 2 most visited hamams are the Cağaloğlu and Çemberlitaş Hamam, both in the centre of the city. The 18th-century Cağaloğlu Hamam is the most beautiful and best-known bathhouse in Istanbul, and a favourite among celebrities. Culture and leisure under one roof. The equally beautiful Çemberlitaş Hamam is even older; this hamam is more than 400 years old. In addition to the standard bath ritual, you may also enjoy aromatherapy, reflexology and Indian scalp massages. Afterwards, bask in the afterglow at the rooftop cafe overlooking the city. An ideal spot to relax in this busy city.

Photo credits

  • The Cağaloğlu Hamam: Jaime.silva, Flickr