A hamam is what is also known as the “Turkish bath,” which emphasizes ritual cleansing with water, rather than ambient steam. It is an enclosed space built out of marble or tiled stone, and typically features architectural elements like a large dome ceiling decorated with small glass windows that filter in natural light. Washbasins for the collection of both warm and cool water are also located along the walls in niches for bathers to use. A large circular ‘navel stone’ (göbek tasi), which radiates heat, is located in the center of the room. Bathers lay upon the stone in order to absorb the warm energy and relax and re-energize.
Most public hamams are separated according to gender with different spaces or opening hours for men and women. Modern hotels often have shared visitation hours. In contrast, the Hamam in the Schokofabrik is open exclusively to women, and its staff is entirely composed of women.
The hamam was widely disseminated throughout the entire Islamic sphere during the rise of the Ottoman Empire. The strict separation of genders traditionally practiced in the Muslim faith played a significant role in its development. Such baths have persisted since Antiquity into the present day in Turkey and the Middle East, as well as in places like Hungary, Spain, and Greece. Today, many former hamams have entirely different functions, like the bath in Thessaloniki, Greece, which is now operated as an event space.
Significantly, the hamam has always served as a center of communication. Social connections played an important role in the traditional hamam; relationships between heads of families and other individuals could be comfortably maintained in a relaxed surrounding (compare with the bride-hamam). The same is true for the our Hamam, The Turkish Bath for Women: Our guests, as well as the women who work here, regularly converse with one another, and this interaction produces a very lively atmosphere. We do ask, however, that guests keep conversations to a minimum in the downstairs relaxation room and especially in the saunas, where absolute tranquility should be maintained.
More detailed information can be found about the hamam tradition online on information sites like Wikipedia. There is also a very informative report on both the history and present practices of the hamam culture in Istanbul at www.tagesschau.de (available in the German language).