The tradition of the Turkish bath extends far back, to a time before Turks had reached Anatolia. When the Turks arrived in Anatolia, they brought with them one bathing tradition, and were confronted with another, that of Romans and the Byzantines, with certain local variants. The traditions merged, and with the addition of the Moslem concern for cleanliness and its concomitant respect for the uses of water, there arose an entirely new concept, that of the Turkish Bath. In time it became an institution, with its system of ineradicable customs.
For the Turkish bath was much more than just a place to cleanse the skin. It was intimately bound up with everyday life, a place where people of every rank and station, young and old, rich an poor, townsman or villager, could come freely. Women as well as men made use of the "Hamam", as the bath is known in Turkish, although of course at separate hours.
From the individual's point of view, the hamam was a familiar place from the earliest weeks of life right up to its very end. Important occasions during a lifespan were, and in some township still are, celebrated with rejoicing at the bath. The newborn's fortieth day, the brides bathing complete with food and live music, and the Avowal are instances. The latter requires some explanation, for it involved the custom common in Anatolia of making a promise or vow, contingent on the fulfillment of some important wish. The celebration of this in the hamam was arranged and paid for by the person fulfilling his vow, and was open to one and all.
The hamam ceremony of mourning, on the other hand, was far different, but also widespread. The Hospitality bathing was simply the taking of one's house-guest to the hamam for a wash. Then there were the Circumcision, Groom's, and Off-to-the-Army bathings, and others besides. As we see, the whole culture of a people had the Turkish bath as one of its important nexuses.
Naturally, there was a range of equipment associated with a hamam visit, and until recently one might count from 15 to 20 articles in the bundle which a woman brought along with her. Let's see this bundles:
The "pestemal" (pesh-te-mahl), a large towel fringed at both ends and wrapped around the torso, from below the armpits to about mid-thigh, as the woman made her way to the "kurna" or marble basin. The pestemal would be striped or checked, a colored mixture of silk and cotton, or pure cotton, or even pure silk.
A pair of wooden clogs or patens, in Turkish "nalin", of which there were many varied types. Carved exquisitely, these patens kept the wearer's feet clear of the wet floor. They would be embellished in a number of ways, most often with mother-of-pearl, or even sheathed in tooled silver. They might have jingles, or a woven straw sheath, or be applied with felt or brass.
The "tas", or bowl for pouring water over the body, was always of metal. Weather silver, gilt or tinned copper, or of brass, the tas always had grooved and inlaid ornamentation.
One finds a soap case of metal, usually copper, with a handle on top like a handbag, and perforated at the bottom to allow water to run out. Not only soap goes into such a case, but also a coarse mitt for scouring down the skin, a webbing of date-palm or other fibers for lathering on the soap, and combs both fine and broad-toothed made of horn or ivory.
The "kese" (keh-seh), that rough cloth mitt carried in the soap case, not only scoured the dirt out of the pores, but served to deliver a bracing massage. The soaping web, on the other hand, was specially woven out of hair or plant fibers.
A small jewelry box is often included, and depending on the region will be of silver, copper or wood, sometimes covered with wicker, felt, velvet or silver. As she undresses in the hamam, the woman will remove her jewelry and place it in this box.
There are three towels for drying, one to go around the hair like a turban, one around the shoulders, and one around the waist.
The hamam carpet would be laid on the floor, then another cloth spread over it. Indeed, the name of the latter, "yaygi", contains the Turkish root for Quotspread". The woman would sit on the mat so formed to undress, and it was here that the bundle itself would be placed. After each trip to the hamam the spread would be washed and dried, then folded away in the bundle until the next time.
An inner bundle cloth was made of cambric, which can be repeatedly washed.
The outer bundle on the other hand, heavily embroidered, might be velvet, woolen or silken weave. In any case, it is always showy, suitable for the uses to which it is put on feast days and other special occasions.
The mirror was an indispensable item in the bundle, its frame and handle often of wood, but sometimes of silver or brass.
There might be a bowl for henna, which the woman would fill on arriving at the hamam. Aside from the color it lends, henna is considered to strengthen the hair. Henna is an old tradition for young girls before their marriage day; called as Henna night.
A very small container, made of tinned copper, was used to mash up an eyebrow darkener known as "rastik", especially popular with those of fair and auburn hair.
There is another box, this one for "surme", for the lids.
Attar of rose in a bottle, the bottle in turn kept in a wooden case, and inevitably found in the hamam bundle: No other perfume was considered proper for the newly washed body.
Bride's BathGelin Hamami
For the bride's visit to the hamam there was a distinctive costume for cold days, a vest and pair of loose trousers (the "shalvar") made of fine felt cloth. This gift from the family of the groom would be worn going to and coming back home from the bath on that special day of the marriage.
Another item of wear, again worn on the day of the bride's visit to the hamam, was a silken robe, open at the front and much like the Japanese kimono. The collar, the sleeves, and the front borders were all embroidered. In this ornate robe, the bride would sit on a kind of throne in the tepidarium of the bath, and the candles would be picked up by maidens and young women. The bride leading the way, the procession would march behind a woman beating a tambourine, around the hamam pool. Soon the voices of the maidens and young women would be heard in song as, candles in hand still burning, they did the circuit of the pool again and again. At some point the bridal veil would be produced to cover the bride's head, and then came the wishing, as unmarried girls tossed coins into the pool in hopes of getting the husband they desired. Even today these deeply rooted customs can be observed in the rituals of the Turkish bath.
A head covering of sheer white muslin, its edges bordered with "oya" crochet work, also emerges from the bundle. A woman will have several of these to her name. They are tied over the hair before leaving the hamam, to take up any remaining moisture.
In the towns, as opposed to the cities, there was a specially shaped carrier called a "kirdanlik" which word might perhaps be rendered "the grime-time bucket". Into it went soap, washcloths, clogs, and the pouring bowl, while the hamam bundle went on top. On reaching the bath this carrier would be used as a pail to work up sudsy water of bathing. This kirdanlik was also used in the men's bath.
The Turkish bath was also, in its own way, a beautician's school where one learned and practiced care of the body and hair, the donning of make-up. And it was here that women, kept almost exclusively indoors, could best relax and enjoy the freedom of a day to themselves.
The fame of The Turkish bath, then, resides in its bringing together many dimensions of the society's culture to create a new phenomenon. The hamam has long been an institution in Turkey, with a deep-going social character that is capable of shedding light on many aspects of Turkish life.
There are several historic Turkish Baths in Istanbul which is a quite good way to experience this traditional culture in Turkey.