Turkish hammams are considered to be one of the classical bathing traditions that still remain popular. It is also a bit of a misnomer since hammams in Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates do not differ much from their Turkish version. All together Hammam is a product of a Muslim culture that expanded past the borders of religion, hygiene or health treatment.
The origins of hammam can be traced to Byzantine bathing traditions. The Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire, for centuries had been preserving Roman customs, bathing included. Arabs, who even before Islam were in close contact with Byzantine, adopted the use of hot steam to their daily routine. The greatest incentive to promote Roman type bathing in the Arab territories of the Middle East came with its endorsement by the prophet of the Muslim religion.
Muhammad believed that the heat of the hammam (translated from Arabic as "spreader of warmth") enhanced fertility, and thus the followers of the faith will multiply. Arabs soon adapted foreign bathing habits to their specific needs.
The Healing powers of hammam were known for centuries. Famous Arab doctor and scientist, Avicenna (Ibn Sina) considered it to be one of the exceptional means of improving health and general well-being. Echoing the opinions of Greek doctors he believed that "physical exercises, healthy lifestyle and regular visits to hammam will render all medicine useless". In his famous work "The Canon of Medical Science" he pointed to beneficial effects of hammam on blood circulation, respiration, weight loss. He recommended hammam as a treatment for insomnia, paralysis, nervous disorders, digestive problems, low appetite, kidney and liver malfunctioning and much more.
As thermae for Romans, hammam soon became the center of a public life. Abu Sir, a distinguished Arab historian used to say that "the city is only good if it has a hammam". It was a place of absolute equality: rich and poor, young and old - every hammam visitor was equally respected. Still, the hammam atmosphere was quite different from that of Roman thermae. It served as a calm and secluded retreat, a place for relaxation and meditation shielded from the worries of the outside world.
For Turks, hammam also became a place where all important life events and achievements were celebrated. It even had its own important place in marriage ritual - a bride with relatives would go to hammam for a pre-marriage fest.
Hammam became such a prominent part of public life, that even those rich enough to have their own private bathing houses would still go to the public hammam to show that they were clean both in body and soul.
Hammam was also famous for mystical tales of djinns that lived in spring water. When water was heated up, these supernatural were said to begin play with each other and hammam visitors. To the observer it looked like clouds of steam going up to the ceiling.
Finally, donating for hammam construction was considered to be a way of improving one's prospects in afterlife. According to the Arabic writer Yusuf Abdalhadi "That who committed many sins should build a hammam to wash them off."