The Origins of Turkish Baths in Syria

  • Samantha Libby
  • 4 May 2011

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.

Five men cool down after a hammam in Damascus, Syria

Five men cool down after a hammam in Damascus, Syria - relaxation in good company with tea and a hookah. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Mr. Theklan

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!

The Process

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.

A traditional Turkish bath requires between 15 and 20 different accessories

A traditional Turkish bath, like this one at the Via Recta Hotel in Damascus, Syria, requires between 15 and 20 different accessories, including three types of towels, wooden clogs and essential oils.

The Accessories

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.

The Benefits

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.

Classica Turkish bath architecture

Turkish baths can be found wherever Arabic culture has strong influence, but most often around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Photo courtesy of wikimedia/hammamgranada

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.

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Samantha Libby

Samantha Libby is a freelance journalist based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where she works for a contemporary art gallery. She is also an artist and the author of numerous short stories, plays and, most recently, a novel. She loves the crazy, the random and the weird, as well as places and people that some would deem 'uncivilized'. She received her BFA in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, in New York City. She likes cake, too.
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architecture & landmarks, Asia, cities, health, local knowledge, Syria, Western Asia,

3 Responses to “The Origins of Turkish Baths in Syria”

  1. Ednan says:

    Very nice stuff, drop by to Damascus and live “Bab Al Harra” era in Old Damascus!

  2. Teamworkz says:

    wow – didn’t know bathing was so complex.

  3. Sonja says:

    Great article, I am sure my group is ready to have another one after the first experience!

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