Qantara Qantara

Private and public baths

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The Hammam

In Islam

Bathhouses (hammams)—places for maintaining hygiene and relaxation—are very common in the Islamic world and play an important role as places for meeting others and developing social relations. They symbolize Islamic civilization in the Western imagination.

These bathing establishments developed in considerable numbers in Islamic countries, as, traditionally, bathing is connected with religious practice. An integral part of the practice of Islam, minor ritual ablutions must be performed before each of the five daily prayers. Major ritual ablutions are performed every Friday before the main weekly prayers. There are precepts relating to personal hygiene and health[1] in the Qurʾān and the Ḥadīths. The association of bathing with Islamic religious ritual partly explains why these buildings have been such a prominent feature of the urban landscapes of cities in the Muslim world since the beginning of Islam[2].

There were two types of bath in the medieval Islamic world. Some of the public bathhouses were for men, and others were for women. Records show that there were considerable numbers of hammams in medieval eastern cities. For example, in Syria, 57 public baths were listed in Damascus in the twelfth century and 164 in Aleppo in the thirteenth century. However, this surprisingly high number doesn’t include the private bathhouses, built in the palaces and lavish dwellings of the elite. Though fewer in number, they represented a third of the Stambouline baths in the seventeenth century.

The principal sources for studying and gaining information about these establishments are of course material, archaeological, and architectural remains, depending on the epoch to which they belong. But the baths also attracted European artists and travellers, who portrayed them in a picturesque way in the accounts of their travels and paintings. This interest in hammams is probably linked to the fact that greater religious-based morality and a change of mentality in the West—which resulted in a mistrust of water as a carrier of disease—led to the disappearance of these establishments (fifteenth century), which had until then been in widespread use.

In the early years of Islam, buildings housing baths were built according to existing architectural formulae, as these establishments were very common in the antique Mediterranean world.

The thermae in Greece, which were some of the public buildings that were most representative of life in Greek society, developed primarily in urban centres and consisted of a central circular room surrounded by other rooms. In the Roman Empire a new layout was introduced, consisting of a large open garden surrounded by subsidiary club rooms and a block of bath chambers. More than 800 baths are attested in the third to fifth centuries, some of which—the Thermae of Diocletian (298–306), for example—were very large public establishments. The existence of smaller, private baths is also attested.

A succession of rooms, each designed for a particular function, were arranged in a set order: the vestiary (apodyterium), the warm room (tepidarium), the hot room (calidarium), and the cold room (frigidarium), while annex rooms for sports activities (swimming and wrestling) were added to this initial scheme. In Roman thermae, the water and heat conveyance system, which was an indispensable part of the establishment’s operating system, was already quite advanced. Water was supplied by means of cisterns filled with water from aqueducts. The entire air and water heating system was underground. Slaves used vaulted passageways—which contained channels leading to each room in the establishment—to feed the boilers. The system of vaults and hollow walls provided good heat circulation, while the thick floors were heated by a system of pilae stacks placed under the floor, allowing the heat to be diffused (hypocaust).

Baths were first introduced in Syria—where the Umayyad dynasty established the seat of the Caliphate in 661—during the Roman period.

Many civil constructions (Khirbat al-Mafjar and Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi) commissioned by Umayyad princes contained bathhouses. Others, like Qusayr ‘Amra, seemed to be essentially bathhouses. The general principle was based on antique bathhouses, even though some significant adaptations were made. They had the same hypocaust systems, heating channels, and rooms, but arranged in a different way: the traditional succession of rooms—the vestiary, cold, warm, and hot rooms—no longer existed. The vestiary was generally much larger than that of the Roman thermae, and obviously had a ceremonial function, underlined by the room’s lavish decorations[3]. The large antique frigidarium with its sports facilities—even though remains of frigidariums are sometimes found, as in Khirbat al-Mafjar—was replaced by a room of more modest proportions. Lastly, the two heated rooms—the warm and hot rooms, whose domed roofs facilitated the channelling of the steam—were larger than the Roman tepidarium and calidarium. The boiler rooms were placed behind the hot room.

The later medieval baths adopted a simplified version of the layout used during the Umayyad period. Hence, during the Ayyūbid and Mamlūk periods[4] in the Near East, the scheme consisted of a vestiary extended by two intermediary rooms (the warm room, often central and surmounted by a dome, was developed quite extensively) followed by the steam room, behind which was located the boiler room. Numerous alcoves provided bathers with a certain amount of privacy.

In later periods, the evolution of the hammam plan was characterized by the progressive abandonment of the unheated intermediary room and, in particular, an increase in the size of the hot room, which became the most important room in the eighteenth century.

The principles of oriental baths were widely adopted in the Muslim West (Spain and the Maghrib). Examples are the tenth-century baths integrated into the Palacio de Villardompardo (Jaén, Spain), which consisted of four rooms (vestiary, cold, warm, and hot rooms) and a boiler room lit by star-shaped windows ornamented with stained glass in the ceilings; and the Alhambra bathhouse in Granada, built at a later date.

The principle of Islamic baths was also adopted in Sicily (the Cefalà Diana baths, twelfth century). After having been under Muslim rule from the ninth to eleventh century, the island returned to the Christian domain and maintained many Islamic and Byzantine traditions.

In Anatolia, bathhouses developed extensively during the Ottoman period. One of the many establishments in the capital, the Topkapi Palace had no less than 30 baths. Public hammams were often located within walled complexes that housed mosques; an example, amongst others, is the Suleymaniyye mosque complex. As in religious architecture, the abundant use of domes and Byzantine architectural traditions was very common. It is often the case—for example, in the Baths of Roxelana (wife of Süleyman I) in Istanbul—that there are two separate areas of equal size for use by men and women.

Although most urban buildings now have a bathroom, hammams remain important places for socializing.

C. S.


[1] The holy book says (Qur’an 2:222): ‘Allah loves those who are constantly repentant and loves those who keep themselves pure’. According to the sayings of Prophet Muḥammad recorded in the Ḥadīths, ‘cleanliness is half of faith’.

[2] Bathhouses are always located near mosques.

[3] See, for example, the decorative programmes in the baths of Qusayr ‘Amra and the Khirbat al-Mafjar complex.

[4] The ‘Izz al-Din Hammam, Tripoli, Lebanon, 1294–1298.