Hammam Al-Basha in Israel, where the only bathers are made of bronze. Image via Wikipedia
Mention sauna and everyone knows what you are talking about. A sauna is that hot, wooden room that nearly every spa, hotel and gym has for its guests. The sauna is a meme in commercials for mundane things like car insurance, eyeglasses and food safety. Sauna is so common that it describes anything hot or that makes you sweat.
The hammam meanwhile is a novelty found only at luxury spas and a few obscure locations in the Middle East. Yet two centuries ago the hammam was common throughout the entire Ottoman Empire which nearly encircled the Mediterranean and extended well into the modern Arab world, while the sauna was almost unheard of. What happened to change this?
Dallas DeForest, an American PhD student in archaeology looks at the rise of the sauna and the decline of the hammam on his blog, Mediterranean Palimpsest.
The area known as Finland had been a territory of the Kingdom of Sweden since the 13th century. In the early 1800′s, the Russians conquered Finland and annexed it as a Russian state. By the mid-1800s, a nationalist movement began within Finland to restore its identity. The Finnish language was revived, books of Finnish folklore were published, and the sauna was adopted as a symbol of all things Finnish. Mr. DeForest explains how the sauna was the ideal symbol for Finland:
The sauna works here in totality. In the sauna all are equal and without rank. Nudity is a means of breaking down social barriers by removing all evidence of one’s rank. Finnish identity also means individualism, self-reliance and sometimes isolation. This ideal is expressed through a forest/nature discourse, in which the ideal is a cottage in the woods, next to a lake, with a sauna, and the requisite supplies to live. Here the Finn lives alongside and is integrated with rugged nature, even defined by it, as free and equal.
He notes that although the Finns adopted the sauna, its origins are not exclusively Finnish. Several other cultures had long traditions of bathing in a hot wooden cabin, like the Russian Banya. This did not matter to the Finns. They had something to rally around.
In the years since then, the ideal of the Finnish sauna, “made of natural materials only, wood, stones and water, and it smells of nature when the birch is released into the air, or the logs become well-used,” has been used by many to denounce the hot baths of other cultures with a stronger pedigree, and even modern conveniences like the electric stove and infrared heating.
The hammam took the other route. At the time the sauna was gaining popularity in Finland, 1350 miles (2160km) to the south, the hammam was the center of the culture at the time. Again, from Mr. DeForest:
Hammams performed a variety of functions in Ottoman society from the 16th until the 19th century. They catered to the basic hygienic needs of neighborhood residents, their first and most important function; Muslims performed ritual ablutions in them on Thursday evenings and Friday mornings before mosque; certain rites of passage occurred in their halls (connected to marriage, birth, conversion to Islam, etc.); and they were important public spaces in the Ottoman city, especially for women. Typically, a hammam was a central feature of the mahalle, which centered on the local mosque (or church), a small plaza, school, and bath. Usually some 100-150 wooden houses clustered around these public buildings, which were made of stone. Some hammams gave their name to entire neighborhoods, and by 1768 so many had been built that [the Sultan] forbid the construction of anymore, since they were consuming too much of the city’s water supply.
In the 1800′s, the nationalism within the Ottoman Empire attacked the hammam. The Ataturk began a program of westernization: widening streets, building modern apartment buildings with bathrooms in the apartment, and a program of secularization. Each of these led to the demise of the hammam by removing the drivers that brought people there and demolishing many of the baths to make way for the construction projects. By 1939, fewer than 25 hammams remained in Istanbul. Today hammams are a novelty, mainly supported by foreign tourists.
You can read his full article “Nation Building and Baths: A Comparison between the Finnish Sauna and Ottoman Hammam” on his blog, which features several more articles on baths and bathing.