Ritual Bathing

Around the world, throughout history and in almost every culture there are rituals around bathing. For many the act of washing is not only external purification, but internal or spiritual as well. Even today, all the major religions in the world have a ceremony in which water is used as a symbol for spiritual purification; consider the various uses of baptism, bathing in the Ganges and the Islamic absolution ritual wudu.

In most of pre-Christian Europe and the rest of the world hot springs were sacred places. They often had temples built on or near them and became places of worship. A well-known example is Bath, England, where nearly two thousand years ago, a temple was built to Minerva near the hot springs. In the 3rd century, the Romans constructed the baths as we see them today.

St. Augustine

There is a traditional Finish saying, “Saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa,” – you should be in the sauna as in a church. However, throughout history the Church has intermittently condemned bathing. Plato and Augustine’s separation of the physical and spiritual spheres vilified the body, condemned public bathing, and severed the connection between physical and spiritual well-being. Consequently, even in the 21st century many people incorrectly associate bathhouses only with prostitution and sexual activity.

Though bathing is becoming less associated with formal religious ritual in the west, practices such as yoga, meditation, and even pastoral care are associated with the growing spa industry worldwide. Even the decor at many spas references sacred spaces. There is usually an atmosphere and etiquette that encourages a quiet, meditative environment much like the Finnish recommend. People are encouraged to speak in soft voices, leave all distractions behind, close their eyes and breathe deeply. The atmosphere is, by nature, spiritual. Whatever your views, going to a spa will undoubtedly create a deeper harmony between your mind and your body; which were the original intentions of ritual bathing.

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The Hamam and A Hammam

Cagaloglu Hamam, Istanbul: Built 1741

A hamam (can be spelled hammam)  is also known as a Turkish bath, or a steam bath.  The hamam is the place where people in Middle Eastern communities bathed for centuries. They reached their height of popularity in Istanbul in the 15th century, and are still frequented today. Hamams are famous for their grand architecture, marble steam rooms, and bath attendants that will scour, soap and massage you clean. More recently, there has been a growing interest in hamams in the west. There are hamams in such cities as Paris, London, New York, and Vancouver.

My mom and I went to Miraj Hammam Spa in Vancouver when she came to visit. We were looking and for a different kind of spa; and found that Miraj Hammam offered an authentic hamam experience, and an enchanted trip to the Middle East.

We arrived, checked in, and were assigned lockers in the small well-appointed change room. After a shower we wrapped ourselves in the provided sarongs and were guided to a candlelit, marble steam room, with a vaulted ceiling. Here we were able to relax on warm marble slabs and absorb the gentle steam as little dancing flames illuminated it.

Before long, our estheticians came to give us a gommage, meaning a soft body scrub using black Moroccan exfoliating soap. Then, we rinsed, robed and went to private rooms for a massage.

Detoxified, buffed, and kneaded; we were as light as the steam that had cleaned our pours and feeling just as evanescent. We moved to the Sultana Lounge where we had tea and sweet buns while reclining on palatial day beds and drifting into a catnap. Eventually we roused ourselves and wandered back to reality.

Miraj Hammam Spa described itself as; “An exotic oasis where you can indulge yourself in traditional Middle Eastern treatments while your imagination takes you on a mystical journey into the past.” What the website doesn’t say is that every need you have has been anticipated, all efforts are made to ensure peace and privacy, and you come away rejuvenated and with a great story.

I am looking forward to going to Istanbul someday to visit a historical hamam. However, Reading Cathedrals of the Flesh, Lonely Planet excerpts, and various other travel writing, I understand that in many countries the bath attendants are not licensed massage therapy professionals. There also seem to be various types of hamans that have different operating principles regarding mixing gender, services provided, and tolerance towards tourists. So, it is a good idea to do some research, make some local friends, and ask questions before you go.