In the Ottoman Empire, bathing was not just a matter of personal care – it was an opportunity for socialising, display and gossip – much like promenading in a fashionable park on a pleasant afternoon.
When I wanted my protagonist to have a bit of girl-time with her closest friend, Derry, it seemed the obvious location. Of course, it also makes for a brilliant excuse to visit one for myself! I’d like to go to Istanbul itself next year, but in the meantime I’ve found out that there are a couple of ‘Turkish baths’ in nearby and there are various others across the UK. I think I’ll be booking one as a birthday treat!
The Turkish bath became popular in Britain in the 17th century where they were often combined with coffee houses. These bagnios, as they were known, were a common sight on London streets and the makers of Channel 4’s City of Vice agree – you’ll recognise them from the first episode. However, by the mid-18th century the word bagnio had rather different associations – it was a place to meet prostitutes and rent out a room for a few hours with no awkward questions asked! Ooh er!
However, this didn’t put off those oppressed Victorians – or perhaps it attracted them – for the Turkish bath enjoyed a renaissance in 19th century Britain and it is this English take on the hammam that can be still be visited today across the country.
But let’s get back to the original hammam…
As an everyday part of Ottoman life, the hammam had (and still has) a whole ritual surrounding it complete with the paraphernalia and terminology.
Your first port of call is a small cubicle where you undress, don a pestemal (a brightly coloured, often checked, fabric wrap) and slip on a pair of wooden clogs, or takunyalar. These clogs were a great opportunity for showing off your wealth with intricate carving and gold or mother of pearl inlay. They are clearly visible in the images above and below.
The bath proper begins in a hot, humid room, the hararet, where you relax on a heated marble platform (called the gobek tasi), working up the maximum sweat with minimum effort! Once your attendant has deemed you sweaty enough, you’re led to basin to be scrubbed and washed to within an inch of your life.
Next you might have your hair washed (perhaps with some divine shampoo from your richly decorated tarak kutusu, or ‘comb box’) or request a Turkish massage. I’m feeling quite envious at this point! Mmm … massage …
But enough of that – onward to the cold room, or sogukluk. Here you have a chance to cool down, drink tea and generally relax … Sounds like just the time for checking out who else is bathing today, how richly embroidered their pestemal is and what they’re chatting about.
And when you’re ready, it’s time to get dressed and return to the real world refreshed and glowing with cleanliness. Sounds lovely!
Finally, I’d like to leave you with the inspiration for this post today – my usual check of BBC news gave me the unexpected but most welcome pleasure of seeing a traditional hammam still in operation*. Even more impressive – this particular bath has been in operation since it was first opened in 1741. The light streaming through tiny windows in the domed roof is typical of hammam architecture and is simply beautiful.
Fingers crossed, I’ll one day get to visit a hammam for myself, but if you’ve been, I’d love to hear about your experience!