In Ottoman times they were the daily ritual of the wealthy and middle class. Hammams were a place to unwind and socialize while getting clean. But in the twentieth century with the rise of internal plumbing and changing attitudes, the traditional hammam declined. Many decayed or were converted to other uses.
Now hammams are becoming popular again. Turks are once again interested in their Ottoman past, and with the recent death of the last heir to the Ottoman throne, that nostalgia will probably increase. Cagaloglu, built in Istanbul in 1741, is on sale for $16 million. Another one in Istanbul’s Aya Kepi neighborhood, dating to the 16th century and built by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan, is on sale cheap for $3 million, but needs extensive remodeling. At the moment it’s being used to store lumber! Hopefully someone will buy this historic building and reopen it as a hammam. There’s also been a spate of new building, with hammams appearing in shopping malls and hotels.
While the big historic ones in Istanbul are impressive, going to a small-town hammam in Cappadocia was one of the more memorable experiences of my month in Turkey. It was so small, in fact, that they didn’t have separate men’s and women’s sections. Men and women went on different days. The smaller crowd made the whole experience more relaxing and the tellak (masseur) sure knew his business. As I lay on a warm stone bench he squashed me into the rock, kneading my muscles until tension fled in terror. The best feeling was when he stopped! It was only then that I realized how relaxed I was.
Lounging around a hammam is a great way to spend a couple of hours. So if you’re headed to Turkey, try a hammam. The small-town ones are more sedate and less expensive, but the big popular ones in Istanbul need support too.