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Turkish Hamman and the West: Myth and Reality
Acta Turcica, Yýl II, Sayý 2, Temmuz 2010 "Kültür Tarihimizde Hamam",
The Turkish hammam has always held enormous fascination for the West. Though the
Western world had known the pleasure of thermae since the establishment of the Roman
empire, the Christian/Catholic religion had discontinued the practice to indulge in cleaning
and bathing as it was considered to be the gate to sin. Catholic church’s austere approach to
the body even condemned an individual who would spend too much time in caring for
personal hygiene, therefore it was even more openly against public places in which people’s
body could be touched and massaged by someone else.
When contacts between West and East were established and many Westerners began
to flock to the Middle East they were immediately attracted by the institution of the Turkish
hammam as it was considered to be an indispensable complement to the harem, that
constituted an exotic and exciting topos in Westerners’ imagery. European diplomats, traders,
military, missionaries and adventurers would travel in a variety of Muslim countries, but most
of them got in contact with the Turkish world, for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that,
as early as the 15th century, most of North Africa and the Middle East was subject to the lords
of Istanbul, thus constituting a vast area in which Turkish culture, including the practice of the
hammam, was widespread and well established. Thus, when Westerners wrote their
travelogues, it was mostly the Turkish world that they described and in their description
harem and hammam occupied a crucial place.
As we know, Western reactions to such a different world were of two kinds: “the first
was to indulge in the excitement of an exotic sexual fantasy beyond the reach and the
constraints and taboos of European culture [... the second] reaction to this vision of
promiscuity and indulgence was one of disapproval and disgust, and the denigration”1 of the
culture which permitted such a scandal.
More often than not these two reactions were combined, and the writer would first
take particular pleasure in lingering on scabrous details about Turks’ way of life, to end later
with an articulated, scholarly and moralistic denunciation of the Turkish/Muslim (im)moral
Curiously but significantly, the first Italian traveler who described a Turkish hammam
dedicated his observations to a cleric: Luigi Bassano, in fact, who signed one of the most
authoritative commentaries on the customs of the Ottomans, amongst whom he spent about
eight years (1532-1540), offered his Costumi et i modi particolari della vita dei Turchi (The
Costums and the Manners of the Turks, 1545) to a high ranking Catholic priest, namely
Cardinal Rodolfo Pio from Carpi. Here is Bassano’s description of a hammam:
[women would go to the hammam] with others, and they wash each other. It is
common knowledge that as a result of this familiarity in washing and rubbing women fall in
love with each other. Therefore it is common that a woman be in love with another woman.
And I have met Greek and Turkish women who, on seeing a beautiful girl, seek occasion to
bath with her, just to see her naked and touch her. That is why, though it is customary to go
the neighborhood hamman, women would go to more distant hammams. Women’s bathing is
a cause of much dishonesty.
Bassano continues by saying that Turkish women would spend whole days in the
hammam, where they were supposed to perform religious ablutions, but in which they used to
carry out only shameful activities.
It is most evident that Bassano’s description was only a fake: men could not enter the
ladies’ hammam, therefore male travelers who depicted these places could rely only on
gossips and second hand data. Besides, what was an Italian Catholic high priest’s interest in
the description of a ladies’ hammam? Evidently, Europe was developing a morbid interest for
the intimate life of its powerful Turkish enemy, so much so that, starting from this period,
every traveler to the Middle East felt obliged to include a chapter on the Turks’ private life,
creating a narrative in which harem and hammam played a very important role. It is
enlightening that, though European travelers could have a direct experience in a male
hammam, their observations regarded only women’s hammam. It is evident that women and
their body were becoming the arena in which West and East confronted themselves: the West,
in particular, had just started its construction of an “Oriental woman” characterized by an
alternation of passive and active features: she was described as submissive, segregated,
enslaved, but also as alluring, seductive, mischievous. These characteristics were combined
together in order to create an enduring stereotype of woman which could confirm Easterners’
inferiority. The Orient itself was feminized and this construction was naturally countered by
that of a “male” West that had the duty/mission to conquer and rescue not only the Oriental
women but the Orient itself.
To accomplish this scheme, as early as the 16th century the descriptions of Oriental
women in the harem and in the hammam tended to be similar and boringly repetitive, where
repetition reinforced stereotypes and travelers depended on each other’s statement in forging
their narrative. The hammam was depicted as the place in which harem women, deprived of
their freedom, could spend some time in lustful activities. The leitmotiv was that, being
harem women frustrated in their sexual aspiration because many of them had to share only
one man’s attentions, they were forced to turn to homosexual love affairs, and the hammam
was the proper place in which these illicit relationships could be cultivated.
Edmondo De Amicis, a famous Italian prose writer who visited Istanbul in the 19th
century, reinforced the stereotype on Turkish ladies’ prohibited affairs by observing: “Women
have the most ardent relationships with one another. They wear the same colors, same
perfumes, put on patches of the same size and shape, and make enthusiastic demonstrations.”2
In addition, De Amicis summoned a woman to prove his assertions right: “One
European woman traveler claims that all the vices of ancient Babylon exist among them [i.e.,
Turkish women]”. If European men’s descriptions could be disputed, an European lady’s
evidence could not, as she was authorized to enter the female hammam; therefore, female
travelers were often quoted as reliable testimonies of Turkish/Oriental women’s intimate
One would expect women to be more sympathetic than men in dealing with their
Eastern sisters, but, on the contrary, European women often showed more bias towards
Oriental women than their male counterparts. It must be said that most Western women
traveled (or, at least, they published their memoirs) in the 19th century, an epoch marked by
Puritanism and (apparent) sexophobia: if European men would target the East as the decadent
kingdom of libidinousness and idleness (though many of them would indulge in prurient
details in order to stimulate their readers’ curiosity), for women the situation was more
complicated. While a visit to the hammam was almost mandatory to every European woman
traveling in the Middle East, for her the contact with other women’s nudity and with their
washing - a practice that in the 19th century European mentality was confined to the private
sphere - was nearly shocking. As a consequence, most women travelers avoided describing
the hammam, while others expressed their uneasiness and disapprobation.
“On entering the chamber a scene presented itself with beggars description. My
companion had prepared me for seeing many persons undressed; but imagine my
astonishment on finding at least thirty women of all ages and many young girls and children
perfectly unclothed. You will scarcely think it possible that no one but ourselves had a vestige
of clothing. Persons of all colors, from the black and glossy shade of the negro to the fairest
possible hue of complexion, were formed in groups, conversing as though fully dressed, with
This horrified description is by Sofia Lane Pool, an English woman who visited Cairo
in the years 1840s and who continued by labeling the hammam scene as “disgusting”: she was
visibly offended by this exposure of flesh, by the mingling of women coming from different
social classes and not racially segregated. For a Victorian lady used to seeing even table legs
covered by a cloth, the impact with frank nudity handled with relaxing attitude by women
must have been not only outrageous, but also a further proof of what her illustrious brother
(i.e., Edward Lane) went on writing, i.e.: Eastern women were promiscuous and
European women’s discomfort in approaching the hammam and its implications such
as nudity and, eventually, sexuality, was such that some of them even denied the physical
advantages and the indubitable benefits of Turkish baths. Among them we can include
Cristina Trivulzio di Belgioioso, a cultivated and progressive Italian noble woman who spent
some time in 19th century Turkey, and who defined the hammam and its massages as “a real
torture”5 Analogously, Harriet Martineau, an English feminist who traveled in the Middle
East in the same period, described her experience in a hammam as it was a descent to the hell:
“Through the dense stream, I saw a reservoir in the middle of the apartment, where, as
I need not to say, the water stands to cool for some time before it can be entered: several
women were standing in it; and those who had come out were sitting on a high shelf in a row,
to steam themselves thoroughly... The crowd and the steam were oppressive, that I wondered
how they could stay: but the noise was not to be endured for a moment. Everyone seemed to
be gabbling at the top of her voice, and we rushed out after a mere glance, stunned and
breathless. To this moment, I find it difficult to think of these creatures as human beings and
certainly I never saw anything, even in the lower slave district of the United States, which so
impressed me with a sense of the impassable differences of race.”6
It is often said that the Orient was (and still is!) the place where many Westerners
discovered themselves: this seems to be very true for Harriet Martineau, a well know
abolitionist who, while visiting a hammam declared that it was the very proof of the
insuperability of racial differences! Westerner women seemed to be more shocked by the lack
of racial segregation shown in the hammam that by its other features, though the whole
ambiance was unattractive or even repulsive for them. They also insisted on the
contraindication of the hammam for health and beauty and underlined how painful this
experience had been for them:
“In an instant I felt as a shrimp, if he feels at all, must feel in boiling water - I was
boiled. I looked at my companion: her face was a gorgeous scarlet. In our best Turkish and in
faint and imploring accents, we gasped ‘Take us away!’ All in vain. We had to be boiled and
ribbed and boiled and rubbed we must be.”
wrote Anne Jane Harvey, who also brought the hammamci, i.e., the hammam keepers,
as the evident proof of the steam baths’ deleterious effects:
“[the hammamci] had been slowly boiling for so many years that they were shriveled
and parted out of the semblance even of ‘womanity’, if such a word may be permitted.
Strange to say they had but few wrinkles, but their skin seemed tightly drawn over their faces,
as over the bones of a skull, and hung loosely in great folds under their chins and around their
throats. [they] had grown so much accustomed to the heated and sulphurous atmosphere in
which they pass the grater portion of their days, that a pure and fresher air is quite painful to
Western women’s overall preoccupation with the unhealthy climate in the hammam
was somehow based on general assumptions postulated by European scientists who associated
people’s character and behavior with climate and physical environment. According to these
sweeping theories, Oriental and black people were characterized by hot blood, nourished by
the sun heat which provoked their high sensuality and dangerous libido. Naturally, women
were also included in this explanation, and therefore considered to be lustful creatures
devoted to physical pleasure and prohibited pastimes: the fact that they would even seek to
create artificial heat in the hammam was looked down upon by both male and female
Westerners, and brought as an additional proof of Oriental women’s incontrollable sensual
However, in reality, it was not the vapor and the heat that bothered Western women,
but rather the atmosphere of the hammam, which was of plentiful relax and wellbeing, but
that they rather perceived as sensual and luxurious:
“The heavy, dense sulphurous vapor that filled the place and almost suffocated me -
the subdued laughter and the whispered conversation of ... [the slaves’ mistresses, murmuring
along in an undercurrent of sound - the sight of nearly three hundred women, only partially
dressed, and that in fine linen so perfectly saturated with vapor that it revealed the whole
outline of the figure - the busy slaves passing and repassing, naked from the waist upwards,
and with their arms folded upon their bosoms, balancing on their heads piles of fringed or
embroidered napkins - groups of lovely girls, laughing, chatting and refreshing themselves
with sweetmeats, sherbet and lemonade - parties of playful children, apparently quite
indifferent to the dense atmosphere which made me struggle for breath.. .all combined to form
a picture like the illusory semblance of a phantasmagoria, almost leaving me in doubt whether
that on which I looked were indeed reality, or the mere creation of a distempered brain.”8
Julia Pardoe, the British historical novelist who wrote this paragraph, connected the
hammam not only with physical but even with mental degeneration, as the “sulphureous
vapor” she was talking about would cause deterioration of the brain, an opinion supported by
a consolidated Western naturalists’ theory about the supposed Eastern people’s inferiority due
to the hot climate in which they lived and that would provoke the deterioration of their
nervous system. Besides, Julia Pardoe was also scared by her feeling of estrangement
experienced by finding herself so exposed to other women’s gaze and by her being
surrounded by the tangible nudity of usually covered bodies, included her own. The hammam
forced European women to confront sexuality and since they were so scared by their own,
they blamed Eastern ladies who instead enjoyed their bath as a customary and pleasant
practice. It is not a mere coincidence that Julia Pardoe harshly criticized Lady Montagu’s
description of a hammam and labeled it as an “unnecessary” and “unwanton” revelation.9 In
fact, in her celebrated accounts of her Turkish experience, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had
“The first sofas were covered with cushion and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies;
and on the second, their saves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress,
all being in their state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or
defect concealed. Yet there was non the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst
them. They walked and moved with the same majestic grace which Milton describes of our
general mother. There were many amongst them as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess
was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian - and most of their skin shiningly white, or
adorned by their beautiful hair divided into many tresses, hanging on their shoulders, braided
either with pearl or ribbon, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces. to see so many
fine women naked, in different posture, some in conversation, some working, other drinking
coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their cushions, while their slaves (generally
pretty girls of seventeen or eighteen) were employed in braiding their hair in several pretty
fancies. In short, it is the women’s coffee-house, where all the news of the town is told,
This letter was written in 1717, more than hundred years before Pardoe’s evidence,
but it seems that there are thousand years difference in sensibilities between the two versions:
Lady Montagu described her hammam experience with easiness and freedom, in accordance
with the spirit of her age, while the desexualized Victorian woman was scandalized by
Montagu’s sensual representation of Ottoman ladies; and she got even more distressed by
encountering and experiencing Turkish way of life in which taking care of one’s own body
was so important.
Hammam in the 19th century Europeans’ minds seemed thus to incarnate the place
where Eastern people’s indolence and sexual deviance were put in practice and exhibited.
There were very few exceptions to this attitude, and one was represented by Amalia Sola
Nizzoli, an Italian woman who spent several years in Egypt, where her relatives worked at
court and her husband was occupied in archeological hunting. Invited to the hammam by a
Turkish officer’s wife, Amalia devoted a great part of her account by describing the rich
clothes with which women were dressed, as, she explained, the hammam was also a pretext to
show off and to please the husband who, later, would lie with their bathed wives hoping that
the treatment would render them more fertile. In her account Amalia spoke more about
clothes than about nudity, though she also described women’s nakedness, the clamor of
women’s complaining about the excessive heat of the water, and women’s singing and
dancing. However, she depicted a genuine atmosphere of a place whose main use was the
“delicious pleasure of massage” and the deep cleanliness of the body: moreover, instead of
talking about illicit relations and sexual deviance, she added a detail that no other European
mentioned, i.e., women after the bath routine, including smoking pipes and drinking sherbets
and coffee, recited their prayers, an act that in Western travel literature is seldom described.
Though Amalia confessed that on the whole it had been a boring experience, at least she did
not indulge in the cliché of the hammam as the homoerotic place par excellence .11
The hammam of the Orientalist painters, or Sodoma and Gomorra
Undoubtedly, a strong impulse to the representation of the Turkish bath as a heap of
sins and lust was given by the Orientalist painters who chose the hammam as the best
postcard from the Orient. Many artists would have at least one hammam scene in their
portfolio, but some of them had a whole series of pictures showing the imagined Turkish
bath: imagined because virtually all these paintings portrayed only women’s hammam, as the
West was hungry for representations of what had been turned into the climax of Oriental
exoticism and eroticism.
The French Jean-Léon Gérome was perhaps the best representative of this school, with
a whole collection of oils dedicated to the Turkish bath and painted in the second half of the
19th century. All Gérome’s paintings represent completely naked women while scratching
their feet with a pumice stone, walking the shallow waters of the bath pool, smoking their
narghile on the pool border, or lazily seated in a mist of vapor. In one of these oils, in
particular, some fully dressed ladies, with their hair covered, seam to be seated in a sort of
theatre box and watching the naked women under them, as if they were the spectators of a
The same voyeuristic attitude is contemplated in a much bigger scene that represented
a hammam in Bursa: a naked lady is walking, sustained by a black hammamci who avoids the
bather’s falling on the slippery floor by embracing the lady’s waist with her arm; both the
women are represented from behind, while the bather turns her face towards the pool in which
two women are bathing. On the opposite border, four women watch the walking woman and
her attendant, their legs lazily swinging in the water. Under the high vault of the hammam
there are groups of women chatting, resting after the bath, smoking; another black woman,
totally dressed, holds a naked baby in her hands while talking with a woman wrapped in a red
The contrast between the whiteness of the ladies who bath in the hammam and the
blackness of the bath attendants’ skin is underlined in another Gérôme’s oil, which, again,
shows a completely nude lady from behind, seated on a low wooden stool, while a standing
black hammamci is washing her back. The bath attendant has the hair covered, but her legs,
arms and bosom are naked. The scene is highly contextualized: a wall is covered with Arabic
calligraphy, ending in corner filled with muqarnas; the lady seats in front of an Islamic style
marble basin and her high slippers, specially designed in order to protect bathers’ feet from
the heated floor, wait behind her. [fig 10]
While all the particulars and details given by Gérôme were plausibly present in a
Turkish bath, it is the final rendition of the ambience and its characters that render everything
so exotic and maliciously sensual. The familiarity among women hints to a closer and
different relation compared to what the viewer can see, as it was a prelude to more lustful
events which take place beyond the visible scene. All these women seem to be waiting for
somebody, maybe a Western man coming to rescue them from the boredom of an exclusively
The apotheosis of the hammam representation belongs to another French painter,
namely Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, whose Turkish bath painted in 1862, epitomizes
Westerners’ concept of a female Turkish bath. Just to start with, the oil is round shaped, as a
keyhole through which the onlooker observes the whole scene where there are painted more
than twenty nude women none of whom is engaged in something related to the bath, nor is at
all evident that the scene actually takes place in a hammam. The bath is a pretext to represent
nudity and promiscuity: the ladies are very close to each other, some on them explicitly
occupied with homosexual caresses, other portrayed in languid poses, other are busy with
dancing and playing instruments, but all of them are represented in pose of sensual abandon.
There is also a small stool with perfumes and other beauty items, the symbols of female
seduction, but nothing else: only round, soft and white female bodies that incarnate the
Western ideal woman of that time. However, though completely naked, some women have
either a turban or a veil on their head, just to remind us that we are in an Oriental setting.
Ingres’ painting confirms that in the West the idea of Turkish bath had become just a pretext
to offer soft pornography to a public hungry for exoticism and erotic gratification..13
Rehabilitating the Turkish Hammam
Nowadays, the West and its increasing hedonistic search for physical gratification
have rehabilitated Turkish hammam, and turned it into an extremely profitable market. There
is no luxurious hotel worth its salt that does not offer a Turkish bath treatment, thought the
concept of hammam is often revisited according to the local mentality and to Western
customers’ expectation of a Turkish hammam. The beneficial effects of the hammam
treatments have been so widely recognized that they have started to mushroom in the
foremost European capitals, where it has become very fashionable to spend one’s lunch break
in being massaged or vapor treated, while sipping a healthy and dietetic vegetable shake
instead of a caloric and unhealthful cheese burger. Fashion goes hand in hand with business;
for instance, a trendy hammam in Milan offers a wide range of beauty treatments -packages
with massages, henna drawings, samples of “Oriental” cosmetics etc. - whose prices are not
popular at all. The cheapest treatment, called “The Rose Path” costs 50 euros (about 86 YTL),
but those who want to walk on the more articulated “Cleopatra’s Path” must pay 140 euros
Amazingly, most of these European hammams advertise themselves through images
which echo the 19th century Orientalist paintings, with groups of women entertaining each
other and helped by black assistants.14 The homoerotic aspect so dear to Orientalist’s narrative
is also somehow revisited, as the hammams advertise themselves as a proper place for a
would-to be bride and her female friends to celebrate the “farewell to celibacy”, a gathering
that has recently become very popular and considered to be a requirement for independent and
Some baths are arranged and furnished as if they were the set for a Thousand and One
Nights movie, with Moroccan cushions and Tunisian brass teapots, and explicitly hint to the
hammam as a heritage of Arab/Maghrebian culture, which is perhaps considered to be more
exotic than the Turkish one.
There is also a particular context in which the Turkish bath gender implications are
retrieved, namely the hammam in Turin (North/West Italy), opened more than ten years ago
with the intent to reproduce “the ritual space for female relationships” which should constitute
the foundation of this institution, according to the Turin bath’s creators.
Curiously, an Italian/Turkish bath promotes the hammam as an institution born in
Istanbul and whose main quality is that of constituting “a gate between East and West”: if this
is the case, this only quality would be more than enough to promote the hammam as a
remarkable and indispensable institution.
Allumeuse du narghilé, Keop Gallery, Geneva.
Amicis, Edmondo De, Costantinopoli, Milano 1977 (1st edition 1858).
Belgioioso, Cristina Trivulzio di, Emina, Ferrara 1995-97. (1 st edition Milano1858).
Graham-Brown, Sarah, Images of Women: The Portrayal of Women in Photography of the
Middle East, 1860-1950, New York 1988.
Harvey, Annie Jane, Turkish Harems and Circassian Homes, London 1871, 75.
Lane, Edward, Manners and Custom of the Modern Egyptians, London 1836.
Martineau, Harriet, Eastern Life Life Present and Past, London 1848.
Montagu, Mary Wortley, The Complete Letters, London 1708-1820.
Nizzoli, Amalia, Memorie sull ’Egitto e specialmente sui costumi delle donne orientali e gli
harem, scritte durante il mio soggiorno in quelpaese, 1819-1828, Milano 1841.
Pardoe, Julia, Beauties of the Bosphorous, London 1840.
Pardoe, Julia, The City of the Sultan and the Domestic Manners of the Turks in 1836, 2 vols.,
London 1837, vol. I.
Poole, Sophia Lane, The Englishwoman in Egypt: Letters from Cairo written during a
Residence there in 1842, 3 and 4 with E. W. Lane by his Sister, 2 voll., London 1844,
letter XXIX, vol. II.
Rana Kabbani, Europe’s Myths of Orient, Bloomington 1986.
Sarah Graham-Brown, Images of Women: The Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East, 1860¬
1950, New York 1988, p. 70.
Edmondo De Amicis, Costantinopoli, Milano 1977 (1st edition 1858).
Sophia Lane Poole, The Englishwoman in Egypt: Letters from Cairo written during a Residence there in 1842,
3 and 4 with E.W. Lane by his Sister, 2 voll., London 1844, letter XXIX, vol. II, p. 173-4.
Edward Lane was the author on one of the most authoritative and famous descriptions of 19th century Egypt,
namely Manners and Custom of the Modern Egyptians, London 1836.
Cristina Trivulzio di Belgioioso, Emina, Ferrara 1995-97, p. 86. (1 st edition Milano1858).
Harriet Martineau, Eastern Life Life Present and Past, London 1848, p. 544.
Annie Jane Harvey, Turkish Harems and Circassian Homes, London 1871, 75.
Julia Pardoe, Beauties of the Bosphorous, London 1840.
Julia Pardoe, The City of the Sultan and the Domestic Manners of the Turks in 1836, 2 vols., London 1837,
vol. 1, pp. 136-137.
Mary Wortley Montagu, The Complete Letters, London 1708-1820.
Amalia Nizzoli, Memorie sull’Egitto e specialmente sui costumi delle donne orientali e gli harem, scritte
durante il mio soggiorno in quel paese, 1819-1828, Milano 1841.
Allumeuse du narghilé, Keop Gallery, Geneva.
A description of this painting is also in Rana Kabbani, Europe’s Myths of Orient, Bloomington 1986, p. 84.