In some cultures, taking a bath has always been a community affair. Thousands of years ago the Greeks and Romans popularised the practice, but it wasn’t until later that the Ottoman Turks perfected it, transforming bathing into a social, ritualistic art. Today, hammams (Turkish bathhouses) across the Middle East and Mediterranean give spa enthusiasts a way to relive this ancient experience and to reap the numerous health benefits.
As Syria is home to some of the oldest cities in the world, places like Damascus and Aleppo offer some of the finest Turkish baths of all, with architecture dating back hundreds of years. These bathhouses were an integral part of daily life: a place for women who were otherwise confined to their homes could socialise, and for men to transact business. It was even said that a woman who did not receive a ‘bath’ allowance from her husband was entitled to a divorce!
A Turkish bath is about relaxation and appreciating the process. As it can take several hours, it’s not something to be rushed or squeezed into a tight schedule. In ancient times, it was not only a cleansing ritual, but also a social gathering and purification ceremony.
The bath begins in the ‘warm room,’ where visitors sit in hot, dry air that triggers profuse sweating. This process opens the pores and prepares bathers for the next step – the ‘hot room’ – where the temperature rises sharply to purge the body of all toxins.
Bathers then move to the next room, where they splash themselves with cold water, usually from a local spring or nearby source.
Then, at last, it is time for a full-body wash and scrub, performed by an attendant, followed by a luxurious massage on the famed Turkish bath towels.
Finally, the bather ends the experience in the ‘cooling room,’ where one can relax and (per the name of the room) cool the body back down after so much non-stop exposure to steam.
You need more than a towel and a bar of soap for a Turkish bath. For a truly traditional bath, an array of some 20 articles is needed to enjoy the full hammam experience. Some prominent items include (and make great souvenirs):
+ Pestemal: Made from either silk or cotton, the large quintessential Turkish bath towel is checkered or stripped. It is also the visitor’s ‘bathrobe’ when moving from room to room.
+ Nalin: The exquisitely decorated wooden clogs used for walking on the wet floor.
+ Tas: A silver or brass bowl used to pour water over your body.
+ Kese: An exfoliating mitt used to cleanse skin and vigorously massage the skin.
+ Hammam carpet: A soft place for the bather to sit and undress.
+ Rose Essence: Sprinkled on the body and hair after bathing.
Saunas have satisfied people all across the world for their numerous health benefits. From Native American sweat lodges to Finnish saunas and Turkish baths, it is no coincidence that soaking is a weekly ritual on several sides of the globe.
Exposure to hot steam elevates the body temperature and increases sweating, which pushes toxins and chemicals from the skin while increasing the heart rate, blood circulation and metabolism. Both amateur and professional athletes use saunas regularly to relax tired muscles and relieve stress and tension.
For similar reasons, anyone with allergies or a recent illness can inhale steam to clear up congestion and loosen mucous, creating cleared breathing passageways.
And for everyone in search of ageless and beautiful skin, hot saunas open pores, remove excess oil and dirt, and increase circulation to the skin. Steam showers also soften and smooth the skin by making exfoliation easier.
Finding the Hammam Experience
An estimated 5,000 bathhouses are believed to have been in existence in 16th-century Ottoman Turkey. It remains an integral part of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean culture, but has also survived in England, where it was made popular in Victorian times.
Nowadays, the Turkish baths in Syria are some of the most beautiful and well-preserved hammams in the world. In the capital city of Damascus, boutique hotels offer the hammam experiences. At the the Beit Zaman, guests find both a traditional steam bath and a jillak, or traditional tearoom. The Via Recta Hotel, which showcases work of the 19th-century mosaic artist Jerji Al-Bitar, also has a private hammam. At the hammam in the Al Pasha Hotel, guests can put themselves in the hands of some of the best masseurs in the city.
Aleppo is Syria’s most populous city and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Here, a 16th-century palace has been turned into an astonishing luxury accommodation, where each suite represents a different era of Aleppo’s history. The Mansouriya Palace invites its guests to savour traditional cuisine at its restaurants and indulge in a private hammam.