The Turkish bath 

click to enlarge A woman wrapped in a pestamal relaxes in a hamam.
  • A woman wrapped in a pestamal relaxes in a hamam.

It is the early 20th century in a rural village in central Turkey. The Great War (WWI) has not yet begun and the villagers are happy in their ignorance of the strife that is to come. The population is made up of Muslims and Christians alike, peaceably co-existing in mutual acceptance of their differences. It is still two decades before the Christians are forcefully marched off to Greece and replaced with Muslims from that country. The Ottoman Empire is in its dying days, and the modern Republic of Turkey has yet to rise from its ashes.

In the hills surrounding the town, there is, perhaps, a young goatherd tending to his flock. In the village proper, a weathered, old potter is practising his trade, crafting pots to sell for profit. It is an era when women led a quiet, cloistered existence, mindful of their diminished status and respectful of their husbands. Those of the Muslim faith who are disloyal to their spouse, may expect a public beating and condemnation to a life in the brothel for their indiscretion. One of the few places that the womenfolk from such a village can relax and socialize together away from the watchful eyes of the men is at the hamam , or the Turkish bath.

Before the advent of modern plumbing, public bathing was a way of life. More than simply a place to wash, the hamam was a place to socialize, to relax and unwind, a place where people of all ages and ranks, but not sex, came together. Part of Ottoman and Turkish culture for centuries, the customs of the Turkish bath evolved from a combination of traditions: Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, and of course, Turkish.

A traditional hamam is made up of three separate areas. The first is a warm room where the bather can relax and unwind, perspiring freely in the warm, dry air. Next is the hot room. Here one is vigorously scrubbed clean and perhaps massaged a little before being doused in cold water. The final room is for cooling down, relaxing and drinking tea. Women will socialize and gossip while waxing their bodies, dying their hair and decorating their hands and feet with henna. Older women may be on the lookout for a potential wife for their sons. Men may use this time for discussing manly affairs such as business, politics and the news.

Often an elaborate event, women of higher stature may require a servant to help with her multitude of bathing accessories. A pestamal is a colourful checkered wrap of silk or cotton for wrapping around the body. Patens are worn on the feet, wooden clogs often intricately carved and inlaid with silver or mother of pearl. Toiletries are carried in a copper or gold plated tarak kutusu , or comb box, and an ornate, grooved copper tas is required to pour water over the bather. Three towels are needed; for the head, torso and waist. Also necessary are a mirror, a jewel box, a bowl of henna, eyebrow darkener and a copper bowl to mix it in, as well as a box of surma for lining the eyes and, of course, rose water perfume.


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