A hammam is both a traditional Turkish bath and an exfoliating, cleansing, and detoxifying treatment. Hammam's roots can be traced to the Roman baths, which featured rooms of various temperatures to stimulate circulation and the process of detoxification by sweating out impurities. After the fall of the Roman empire, public baths died out in the west but thrived in the eastern Byzantine empire centered around Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul.
Islamic culture arose in the 6th-century C.E, and hammam became an important part of village life. They were often very beautiful buildings attached to a local mosque and a place of ritual purification. Cleansing scrubs and massages were added, and both men and women came to bath and socialize -- separately, of course. The hammam was a place to gather and talk, a role it still plays in many Middle Eastern communities.
The western spa industry knows a good idea when it sees it, however, so modern-day hammam experiences and fancy steam rooms called hammam began popping up at luxury hotels. If it's just a fancy steam room, it's not a true hammam. What makes it authentic is the heated marble stone, the exfoliating, cleansing, and detoxifying hammam treatment, and the traditional materials sourced from Turkey and Morocco, where hammam is still part of community life.
Where to Find a Hammam
The finest authentic hammam experience in the U.S. can be found at Trump Soho in New York City. The entire spa is inspired by the Middle East, and it has two private mosaic rooms with domed ceilings - one for men and one for women -- with heated marble slabs where the exfoliating, cleansing and detoxifying treatment takes place. Your body is heated to the point where you're sweating out toxins as the therapist exfoliates and washes you, all the time drenching you in water to keep you comfortable.
Two other U.S. hotels that offer authentic hamman in large, beautiful steam rooms that can accommodate several people include The Sahra Spa and Hammam at The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas and Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas. There are also some small specialty day spas such as Miraj Hammam in Vancouver, Hammam Spa in Toronto, Soma Hammam & Spa in Calgary, and The Hammam Spa in Houston, owned by a Moroccan woman named Latifah.
You can also go to Morocco or Turkey to have a hammam. Luxury hotels there also offer expensive hammam experiences that won't get you out of your comfort zone. Or you can go to a traditional, community hammam that is not anything like an American spa experience. Upon entering the hammam, you find yourself in a dressing room (camekan). Your attendant will give you a cotton wrap (pestemal) and a pair of slippers (terlik), along with a key to your cubicle.
Once you have removed all your clothing and wrapped the cotton cloth around you sarong-style, you are ready to go. Your attendant will ask you if you need a soap, towel, or shampoo. Be sure to bring your own. Some baths do offer them, but they are expensive and not high quality. The attendants may not speak much English, so communicating what you would like may be a challenge. You'll be given the choice of bathing yourself or receiving a scrub, or massage.
Working up a Sweat in a Turkish Bath
You're taken to a warm, humid room with a raised stone platform (goebektas) in the center, surrounded by bathing alcoves, in pretty colored quartz tiles. The tiles remove static electricity from the air and help to relax the mind and body. The light, diffused through the glass in the ceiling is soft and relaxing.
You lay or sit on the platform, which is heated, and work up a sweat. The attendant then leads you to one of the basins, and you're scrubbed cleaner than you ever have been, and again. She uses a coarse mitt to remove layers of dead skin, then comes the soap. She uses a lacy cloth, like an icing bag, and blows through it to create bubbles so you're covered from head to toe with white frothy bubbles.
Next, you are doused in warm water again and the attendant disappears. This allows you to clean your private areas yourself. Total nudity is fine, but some women wear underwear. For the massage you go back to the stone platform, and it might be a bit rougher than a traditional Swedish massage. After the massage you are handed towels and then taken to the cool room to cool down and drink tea.
After your rest, it is time to head back to the cubicle to get dressed. Although a scrub and massage generally take an hour and a half, you can take as much time as you need. Not everyone is keen for the real Turkish bath experience and to struggle with communicating what you would like. At some tourist hammams, cleanliness can also be an issue.
Five-Star Hotels Have Luxury Hammams
Luckily several five-star hotels in Istanbul have hammams that offer a traditional experience that is relaxed, luxurious and comfortable enough for Western tastes. Some even have special bridal hammam ceremonies for the bride and her friends. The Laveda Spa at the Ritz Carlton, Istanbul has its own hammam and offers a blissful experience. First, you are exfoliated with kese, a soft massage with lavender, tea, chamomile, or olive oil soap.
Forget about asking for a bathing cap to keep your blowout. The hair wash is one of the best parts, with hair balsam, and scalp massage. For total indulgence, try the Sultans Royal Six Hands massage, applied by three trained therapists.