Hammam for Beginners
Photo by pxhere
Hammam. The word can conjure up sybaritic images of luxury; of hedonistic bathing rituals rooted in the fragrant spice roads of the East.
But what is hammam, exactly?
At it's most basic, it's a public bathhouse and steam room. At it's most voluptuous, it's a head-to-toe spa-like experience. It frequently involves massage and exfoliation. It is an ancient and quintessential wellness experience. Often called Turkish baths because of the gorgeous hammams built by the Ottomans, it was originally a way to cleanse oneself before prayer. But the roots go even farther back than that.
The History of the Hammam
The origins of the hammam go as far back as the Byzantines and the Romans before them. We know Romans had their own bathing rituals and built public baths as far-flung in their empire as Britannia (the city of Bath is literally named for them) and Asia Minor.
The Byzantines used them as well, but the hammam really reached it's stride after the Ottoman Turks conquered Asia Minor and overthrew the Byzantine Empire. Hammams spread across the Ottoman Empire from Spain to Morocco to Iran, Greece and even Hungary, and the Muslim expansion even introduced the idea to the Indian subcontinent under the Mughals.
Many hammams were stunning architectural marvels, like the Baths of the Sultan and the Queen Mother in the Topkapi Palace in Constantinople/Istanbul and the 16th century Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse in Iran. There are examples wherever the Ottomans ruled. Traditionally, the roofs are domed and pierced with round or star-shaped glass holes to let the light in (since you wouldn't want windows for obvious reasons). This lighting gives the hammam an intimate and almost mystical feel.
Today, you can find hammams all over the Muslim world and elsewhere, too; primarily in Turkey, Morocco and Iran, but also in Greece, Pakistan and even in the USA.
As mentioned, hammams were places for public bathing, and while that may draw a prim shudder from us now in the modern age, you have to remember that homes didn't have bathrooms back in the day. Think about it. There was an outhouse or latrine - maybe! - for toilet duties, but where to actually get clean?
Enter the public bath. Depending on the era, the country, and the dominant religion, these were either co-ed or gender-separated. Public bathing happens even today in places like Indonesia, where men and women bathe together - frequently outdoors and in view of passing traffic - but where it's considered deeply uncool to even glance at each other.
Hammams were places for religious bathing before ritual Muslim prayers, as I mentioned before. But beyond their function of providing hygiene, they also were civic gathering places, with a heavily social aspect. Big events such as marriages and births saw the hammam incorporated into the rituals. They were and are still a place to socialize and relax with members of the community.
Hammam provides several health benefits, too. It's said to boost the immune system, relax the body and the mind and reduce stress, increase circulation, detox the body as a result of steaming out the pores, fight acne and skin conditions, improve sleep, and revitalize and anti-age the skin from the exfoliation.
And I can say from experience that after mine, I felt like a million dollars.
Photo from Pexels
What Actually Happens in a Hammam?
There are various types of hammam treatments, ranging from the basic exfoliation and bathing you do yourself, to a wide range of massages and treatments done for you by an attendant. The thread that ties all the options together is the steam and the water. Humidity is generally at 100%, but it shouldn't be difficult to tolerate unless you have asthma or some other medical condition, in which case you should not go to a hammam at all. The same applies if you have heart, lung or skin problems, or are pregnant or have high or low blood pressure - do not do a hammam unless you get the all-clear from your doctor.
The bathing part isn't done in a tub or pool, generally. There are marble sinks or fountains carved into the walls with hot and cold water taps , and you douse yourself (or are doused by your attendant) from a bowl filled with water. Muslim tradition has always preferred flowing water to an immersive bath. As a shower gal rather than a bath gal, I'm 100% on board with this.
You lie on a warm marble slab with a thin cotton hammam towel, or peshtemal, under you. It and you will get soaked immediately, so go with that. You'll get a dry towel at the end.
You can have a face treatment, a body mud mask, a shampoo with fragrant pine (or other) shampoo, a lathering-up with rich olive oil soap, an exfoliation with a coarse keşe mitt, a massage, or any combination of these.
Are you naked for the experience? Maybe. It depends on where you go. Many places are fine with you wearing a bathing suit, as I did, especially if they're in an area where tourists might also go. The more traditional ones may have everyone naked in the same steam room (same gender only, of course). Some places offer a disposable paper loincloth situation.
As someone who has grown up on the standard American diet of neurotic sexuality and body-shaming, I was clearly more comfortable with the bathing suit experience.
Peshtemal, or cotton hammam towels
What You’ll Need to Bring
Wide-toothed comb for your hair or a hairbrush
Toiletries for after your treatment. Some hammams will provide hair dryers, cotton swabs and the like.
Depending on the hammam: bathing suit, towel, flip flops, robe, etc. Call ahead or check their website to see what they provide and what you should bring. The one I went to provided rubber slippers and a hammam towel.
A plastic bag for your wet bathing suit
My First Hammam Experience
I had been toying with the idea of going to a hammam in Greece for - no joke - four years or so. On my last couple of trips to Athens, it didn't work out for one reason or another, but this last time I found myself with a completely free afternoon and the idea came back to me. I called and set up the appointment with Polis Hammam, a luxurious-looking place in the Psyrri neighborhood of Athens with an enticing array of treatments, prepaid over the phone, and came in the following afternoon.
The hammam is tucked into a tiny alley a couple streets off of Ermou Street. The starry entrance was impressive and boded well for what lay inside.
Stairway to heaven. My photo.
In the reception area, the round roof of the hammam itself took up most of the floor space. There were some soaps, shampoos and hammam towels for sale in a corner.
After checking in and filling out a short form regarding my health, I was taken downstairs by a young man and led to the dressing area.
Uh oh. I had requested a female attendant. What was happening?
I changed and came out in my bathing suit with my peshtemal wrapped around me and put my bag and clothes in a locker. He opened the door to the hammam itself. A warm wall of humidity embraced me like a clingy cloud.
There was a spacious central area under the domed roof with a very large marble slab, as well as smaller treatment rooms arrayed off the center room. I could see the occasional person - some men, some women - in the smaller rooms.
I don't have any photos of the inside for obvious reasons - no one wants some rando with a camera taking photos in a bathing area. Also, frankly, even if I had, the humidity was such that my lens would have immediately fogged up and rendered my camera phone useless.
Since I couldn't take my camera in, here's a royalty-free shot of a different, but similar, hammam roof. Photo by Pexels.
He brought me to my own treatment room, with a large marble slab and two carved marble fountains in the wall, and asked me to lay my towel out and lie down. Then he left.
To my relief, the female attendant came in soon after. From the hammam's extensive menu of options, I'd chosen the Ancient Greek Bath, because of course I did. Other wonderful-sounding treatments included a Moroccan Bath, Egyptian Bath, Byzantine Bath, Aesclepius Massage, Olympus Massage, and many, many more delicious-sounding treats.
First she let me sweat for a bit - literally. After a few minutes I was just a warm, wet, happy blob, letting the steam enter every pore. Goodbye toxins!
Then she carefully massaged a fragrantly herbal mud mask all over my arms, legs and upper chest and let it sit while she put yet another mask on my face. This was a volcanic clay mask loaded with minerals that help remove toxins.
There was a small amount of massage involved, and I was happy to find it was slow and gentle, and not the kind of massage some hammams give. They can apparently make you feel like your internal organs are being treated like too many clothes being roughly stuffed into a too-full suitcase.
She spread some oil through my hair and massaged my head for a bit.
She let me lay there for perhaps 20 minutes, or maybe 30, or more - it's hard to say. Time disappeared. But I do know that after a while, I had to sit up because the flat marble was getting to be a bit much for my back.
I was also not used to steaming for quite this long, and made a mental note to maybe get a shorter treatment next time. While I wasn't anywhere near a state of distress, after a while I just wanted to breathe dry, cool air.
A very wet man in a towel wandered past my door and asked, in Greek, if I was okay. I assured him I was and he nodded and moved on. My attendant came in shortly after with some cool water to drink.
Then there was the first rinse, where she had me pour water from a silver bowl in the wall fountains over myself to clean off the mud.
This. Felt. AWESOME.
After the stifling heat and humidity, the fresh water splashing over me was so refreshing and soothing! I was immediately revived.
She exfoliated my face and body, there was more cool water splashing, and the treatment finished with an application of aromatic oils and creams made with Greek herbs.
I got off the slab, careful not to slip on the wet floor, and that was when I was informed I had to take off my bathing suit. The attendant held out a dry peshtemal like a shield and asked me to take off my wet suit behind it.
*Sigh* Ok. Whatever. She's seen it all, I'm sure.
She wrapped me in the dry towel, and wrapped another towel around my hair. She led me out of the steamy bathing area out to a cool corridor (so nice to breathe normally again!) and a comfortable room with a couch, cushions and Moroccan-style hanging lamps. She had me sit and brought out a silver tray with a small pot of herbal tea and a dried fig on a saucer.
I sat there enjoying the tea, the fig, the silence, and the incredible feeling of serenity and, dare I say, purity. After I was done, I made my way back to the dressing room.
Ok, so you know how advertisements for face creams/makeup/whatever talk about how they will make you "glow"?
GLOW is what I was doing after the hammam. I could barely find a pore on my face. I was rosy. I looked years younger. My body felt indescribably clean and fresh. I felt like a pampered sultana just coming out of a sumptuous, gilded 16th century marble palace.
I'm a convert to hammams. I will absolutely try to go every time I go to Greece (maybe at the beginning of my trip rather than towards the end, like I did this time, as it might be a nice way to start the trip relaxed and refreshed from a long flight).
I'm even going to look into hammams in my area. Yes, there are at least two I've found not too far from Boston, so I'll have to check them out to tide me over until I'm back in Athens.
The hammam was a deeply relaxing, sensual and enjoyable new experience, and I hope to learn and experience more about this ancient and healthy tradition going forward. Consider trying one, if you have the opportunity and it sounds even just a little bit like something you'd like. You won't regret it.
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