The Hammam in Winter

The old local hammam was not big, renovated, or fancy, like the hammams that try to attract tourists. But it was warm, welcoming, efficient and unbelievably cheap.

Miri Shefer, a guest on this month's podcast, writes about her very first experience at a hammam on a snowy winter day in Istanbul.

Read it after the jump.

Fourteen years later, I still remember my first time at the hammam. It was the winter of 1997-98 and I was conducting my doctoral research in Istanbul. It was a cold, wet winter, and we were experiencing a few days of snow that brought Istanbul — the megalopolis that never sleeps — to a halt.

I had just finished my day at the Ottoman archives in the Old City of Sultanahmet and started on my long journey home through the slush. "Home" was the American Research Institute in Arnavutköy.  A former fishing village on the shores of Bosporus, Arnavutköy had become an upper-middle class neighborhood.

I was preparing myself for a slow, hour-long bus ride through the congested streets, when Nurhan Hanım, a Turkish colleague, suggested we go to her neighborhood hammam. She lived in Kadırga, in the lower part of the Old City near the Marmara Sea.

The old local hammam was not big, renovated, or fancy, like the hammams that try to attract tourists. But it was warm, welcoming, efficient and unbelievably cheap. The bath-attendant ushered us through the different rooms, to take off our clothes in a cold room, and get a towel and soap. We were then shown into a small warm room where we were given copper jugs of water to pour on ourselves. We waited to be called to the hot room where we were scrubbed several times — an effective exfoliating treatment. The next stage was a massage. Nurhan warned me that the aging bath attendant was deceptively strong. And she was! After 30 minutes we were sent to dry ourselves and put our clothes on. When we went outside to the cold, I felt invigorated and ready for the hustle and bustle of the city.

This short experience taught me a lot about hammams and their enduring roles in Muslim societies. Westerners' avid interest in the hammams emphasized such aspects as gender roles, sexuality and eroticism, and infringement of privacy. All these are crucial to understanding Muslim societies past and present, and they are focal points for tensions and contestations. However, the atmosphere in a hammam is usually friendly (though business-like). It allows one to cleanse one's body in both the physical and the mental sense. The hammam is a place where men and women alike can also have cosmetic treatments, like hair removal and skin exfoliation. It is an opportunity to meet friends and neighbors and catch up on local gossip -- but one can also keep to oneself, if one prefers the solitude. And although the hammam charges money, it aims to be affordable for most people. Our private bath or shower at home does not fulfill all these services. Hence, even in our days of indoor plumbing, hammams are still operating.  

Who knows what the future has in store for this old Mediterranean institution, which dates back to Roman times. I suspect the hammam will still be a part of the Muslim social fabric, even as it comes under the influence of modern spas, and as spas try to imitate hammams. Maybe a hybrid is on the horizon?

Dr. Miri Shefer-Mossensohn is an Ottomanist at Tel Aviv University. She specializes in social and medical history in the Early Modern period. And she prefers the traditional hammams to modern spas. 

Shoshi Shmuluvitz

Diwaniyya Contributor