University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

The Middle Eastern Hamam or Turkish Bath

Descendant of Greek and Roman Bathing Traditions

Soap case from the personal collection of Addeane S. Caelleigh, University of Virginia School of Medicine

The Middle Eastern bath house—the hamam—is a direct descendant of the bathing traditions of Greece and Rome.  Throughout the Roman Empire, public baths were part of everyday life.  Although the tradition died in Western Europe, it survived in the later cultures in the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East.
Bath houses were large and elaborate in major cities, but simpler versions were found in towns and villages across the continents.  Istanbul (Turkey), for example, has 700-year-old hamams that are still enjoyed by both locals and tourists.
Going to the hamam has always been a social occasion.  A group of friends might spend a few hours together, washing and soaking in cool and hot pools, resting in steam rooms, and getting massages.  A traditional party for a bride or groom would include an elaborate menu.  In earlier centuries, all the women of a household, plus their children and servants, would spend part of the day in the hamam.


People going to the hamam used many specially designed items, such as pans for dipping water from fountains, high shoes to protect the feet from the wet floors, soap cases, cosmetic boxes, and large towels.  Many of the traditional designs are still used today.

This traditional Turkish soap case has holes in the bottom to allow water to drain out.  It would normally have held soap, a rough-textured mitt for scrubbing the skin (like a modern loofah), and a small “soap-webbing” to use in lathering the soap, usually made of date palm or other plant fiber.



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