Hamam, the Turkish Bath
The hamam, or Turkish bath stands for far more than getting a leisurely bath or cleansing. It is a rite and a ritual in which the elements are harnessed for the cleansing and purification of the body. Since it's creation, the Turkish bath has been much more than just a place to cleanse the skin. It was intimately bound to everyday life, a place where people of every rank and class, young and old, rich and poor, townsmen or villagers, could go in freely. Women as well as men frequented the "hamam", as the bath is known in Turkish, although of course, at separate hours.
There were reportedly four thousand five hundred and thirty six private and three hundred public baths in Istanbul in the 16th century. The hamam once provided the only avenue for socialising, especially to women, who were otherwise restricted to the home. In fact it played such a crucial role in the lives of Ottoman women, that it is rumoured that women who did not receive their biweekly allowance from their husbands to go to the hamam were entitled to a divorce! Stories about young Tellaks (male masseurs) turning the head of their customers and providing them with many side benefits are based on real life events.
A range of equipment was part and parcel of the hamam visit in the old days. Even until recently at least fifteen to twenty bath articles are included in the bundle carried by a woman on her hamam visit.
The "Pestemal" a large towel fringed at both ends and wrapped around the torso, from below the armpits to about mid-thigh, used when the bather made her way to the "Kurna" or marble basin. The Pestemal is either striped or checked, a coloured mixture of silk and cotton, pure cotton, or pure silk for the well-to-do ladies.
A pair of wooden clogs, in Turkish "Nalin", of which there were many varied types. Carved exquisitely, these "Nalins" kept the bather's feet clear of the wet floor. They were embellished in a number of ways, most often with mother-of-pearl, or sheathed in silver. Some of them had jingles, or were appliquéd with felt or brass.
The "Tas" is the name given to the bowl used for pouring water over the body. The "Tas" was always made of metal with grooved and inlaid ornamentation. Silver, tinned copper or brass were used in the making of the "Tas"
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 was also part of the hamam paraphernalia. The case not only carried the soap, but also contained a coarse mitt for exfoliating the skin, a weave of date palm for lathering the soap, and a collection of fine and broad-toothed combs made of horn or ivory.
The "kese" that rough cloth mitt was carried in the soap case. Not only did the "Kese" scrape the dirt out of the pores, but it also delivered an invigorating massage. The soaping web, on the other hand, was especially woven out of hair or plant fibre.
A small jewellery box was often included for the bather to store her jewellery while in the hamam. Depending on the region, the box was made of silver, copper or wood. It was sometimes covered with wicker, felt, velvet or silver.
Three different towels were used for drying. One to wrap the hair with like a turban, one to wrap around the shoulders, and one around the waist.
The personal hamam carpet would be laid on the floor, then another cloth spread over it for the bather to sit on to undress. After each trip to the hamam the spread would be washed and dried, then folded away in the bundle until the next time.
The mirror was an indispensable item in the bath bundle. Its frame and handle were often made of wood. Silver or brass were sometimes used for those who could afford them.
Occasionally some bathers filled a bowl with henna upon arriving at the hamam to use on their hair. Besides the warm colour it lends, henna was used to strengthen the hair and make it glisten.
The "Rastik" was a tiny container, made of tinned copper, which was used to grind an eyebrow darkener, especially popular with the fair and auburn haired ladies.
No other perfume besides rose essence was considered proper for the newly washed woman's body. A "Attar" of rose is a bottle kept in a wooden case and used to sprinkle the rose essence on the body and hair after the bath. It was inevitably found in the hamam bundle.
The outer bundle or bag, carrying the hamam equipment was heavily embroidered. Velvet was sometimes used as well as wool or silk weaves. It was always flashy and suitable to use on feast days and other special occasions.
The luscious Turkish hamam experience makes our daily bath or shower seem like such a trivial and insignificant affair in comparison!
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