The Bathhouse of the Winds
The Bathhouse of the Winds is the only surviving hamam (Turkish bathhouse) in Athens and one of the few remnants of Ottoman times. Built in the 16th century it stands near the tower of the winds by the Roman Forum and amazingly functioned as a public bath, with many later additions, right up to 1965. It is now converted in to a small and elegant museum, providing a glimpse into a daily social ritual of Ottoman times.
Functions of the Hamam
Bathhouses were once ubiquitous in the Ottoman Empire, as the Ottomans adopted and continued the ancient practice of public bathing and transformed the ablution centers of their Eastern Roman (Byzantine) predecessors into “relaxation palaces” . For Muslim men frequenting the baths has an additional importance as their religion dictates cleanliness and purification before entering a mosque in order to pray; it is thus no coincidence that a number of imposing bathing structures were built in all Ottoman cities, particular in Constantinople after it became their capital in 1453.
According to the Turkish traveller Evliyia Celebi, who visited Athens in 1667, there were “three pleasant hamams” in the city. After visiting an Athenian bathhouse in 1810 Lord Byron’s friend John Hobbhouse noticed the social aspect of public bathing and commented that the bathhouses were the cafés of the Middle East. And indeed hamams were a place where all social and religious groups were indiscriminately accepted. Open from sunrise to sunset, the hamams were frequented not only for washing but also for use of the barber, exchange of gossip and news, and even business meetings .
For women, regardless of ethnicity and creed, a visit to the bathhouse would be one of the few times their husbands will permit them a day out of the house, a trip to the bathhouse was an opportunity to meet friends and socialize, enjoy music, and indulge in sweets and refreshments. The ritual of the bride’s preparation by friends and relatives on the eve of her wedding usually takes place in the bathhouse. The aristocratic Lady Craven (1786) in her travelogue vividly describes her experience as a spectator in the entrance hall of a bathhouse in Athens.
“The Baths here are very well contrived to stew the rheumatism out of a person’s constitution – but how the women can support the heat of them is perfectly inconceivable – The Consul’s wife, Madame Gaspari, and I went into a room which precedes the Bath, which room is the place where the women dress and undress, fitting like tailors upon boards – there were above fifty; some having their hair washed, others dyed, or plaited; some were at the last part of their toilet, putting with a fine gold pin the black dye into their eyelids; in short, I saw here Turkish and Greek nature, through every degree of concealment, in her primitive slate for the women fitting in the inner room were absolutely so many Eves – and as they came out their flesh looked boiled – These Baths are the great amusement of the women, they stay generally five hours in them; that is in the water and at their toilet together – but I think I never saw so many fat women at once together […]”.
Elizabeth lady Craven
A journey through the Crimea to Constantinople,1789
Despite their almost coffee society aspect bathhouses were also places of mystery. According to Islamic lore, the Ginn, a spirit who dwells in the water of springs and in the darkness of caves finds the damp dark otherworldly rooms of the hamam ideal. Superstitious laws grew up fast and bathers avoided to step on used soapy water as they were sure malicious demons lurked there. There was also a widespread practice of leaving a bit of salted bread to feed any angry demonic force. Often baths were protected from unfriendly spirits by placing an apotropaic mark on the door .
The Turkish baths have also stirred western homoerotic imagination for centuries. Traditionally, the masseurs in the baths, tellak in Turkish, who were young boys, helped wash clients by soaping and scrubbing their bodies. They also worked as sex workers. An eighteenth century book called Dellâkname-i Dilküşâ (The Record of Tellaks) in the Ottoman archives describes the most famous tellaks of Istanbul and their personal success serving their customers, including prices and details of their sexual practices .
Something Old, Something New: Two Athenian Bathhouses
The Bathhouse of the Winds or Abid Efendi Hamamı was in use for 600 years for its initial purpose, as a Turkish Bath, but since 1999, when restoration was completed, it has been a branch of the Museum of Greek Folk Art and operates as a museum devoted to the theme of historical views of bodily cleanliness, care, and beautification. The visual effects and the background soundtrack of water noises and pleasant chatter bring visitors right into the atmosphere of the bathhouse of that period. While the building went through significant changes during the nineteenth century the principal bathing areas (tepidatium and caldarium) have largely kept their original form, with small glass holes allowing light to penetrate into the domes. The underfloor and wall heating systems have been exposed in places allowing visitors to see the lower level where hot air circulated through a network of earthenware pipes, heating up the floor and walls.
If you want to steam away the travel grime in a functioning hamam try Hammam Baths, a modern recreation of a Turkish bathhouse at the corner of Agion Asomaton and Melidoni Street, where you can actually take a bath like you would in Istanbul.
Getting the Treatment: The Hammam Baths’ 60-minute Signature “Ali Mama” treatment includes a hearty scrub, massage and foam bath, administered in a chic all-marble room. Don’t forget to recover while sipping Turkish tea on puffy cushions.
Words by: Nicolas Nicolaides
 Darrell Hartman, “Take a Clean Break in Istanbul, On the hunt for an authentic (but not agonizing) Turkish-bath experience in the crossroads city”, The Wall Street Journal, Retrieved 22/3/2016.
 Laura Wise “Public Baths in Turkey: From Ottoman Times to Today”, Bright Hub Education, Retrieved 22/3/2016.
 Mikkel Aaland, “Mediterranean Baths, The Islamic Hammam is Born”, Cyber-Bohemia, Retrieved 22/3/2016.
 Joseph A. Boone, The Homoerotics of Orientalism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014, pp. 70-89.
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