Nation Building and Baths: A Comparison between the Finnish Sauna and Ottoman Hammam

Today I want to talk a bit about how the Finnish sauna and Ottoman hammam were used (and abused) in the course of nationalist programs in Finland in the 19th century and Turkey in the early twentieth century.

By the 19th century, Finland had been ruled by the Swedish monarchy for some time, and in 1809 the country was turned over to the Russian Czars. Understandably, Finland was between worlds culturally at this time. The sauna emerged as one of the few institutions Finnish nationalists could identify as distinctly Finnish, in their view.  So it became a focal point around which the nationalist movement coalesced and built an imagined community. Of course, to pursue this narrative the nationalists ignored an array of evidence that contradicted it (e.g., the parallels and common traditions of the Russian banya, or the questionable nature of the earliest source material, such as the Kalevala).

Today the sauna is keyed into Finnish identity and society in important ways. The (ideal) concept of Finnish identity has an egalitarian emphasis and a strong connection to nature. 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. The sauna as a building also aligns with the Finnish ideal of a rustic individual connected intimately with the forest: it is 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. For this reason, there is some debate about what constitutes a “real” sauna in Finland. Many prefer the old, traditional, wood-fired models, set in a forest environment to the urban, electrically heated versions.  Of course, this ideal is at odds with modern, urban, industrial society, but it is an ideal after all.

The fate of the Ottoman hammam was much different. In an engaging article, N. Cichocki demonstrates how a single local institution, the Cemberlitas hammam, (built in the 16th century) was affected by the modernization campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries, specifically the Tanzimat reforms and then Ataturk’s program. She succeeds in tracing the evolution of this bath from a functional, necessary public space in an Ottoman neighborhood (mahalle) to a modern tourist attraction, the main reason for its survival and the new locus of its meaning today. It’s one of the three hammams in Istanbul commonly recommended to tourists today (the other two are: Cagaloglu, close to Sultanahmet, and Galatasaray in Beyoglu).

Cemberlitas Hammam

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 Sultan Mustafa III (1757-74) forbid the construction of anymore, since they were consuming too much of the city’s water supply. Baths were most often established within a waqf, a religious charitable endowment. The profits from baths were used to support mosques, schools, and other institutions. The Cemberlitas hammam’s profits helped maintain a mosque complex in Üsküdar (across the Bosphorus), which consisted of schools (primary and secondary), a hospital, tekke (convent), and inn. This facility was built in the 16th century, too.

But all of this unraveled over the course of the late 19th and early 20th century. The 1866 Road Commission, e.g., resulted in the partial demolition of the women’s changing room in the bath and therefore the closure of the women’s baths for several decades. The head of this commission had visited Paris and wanted to remake Istanbul is that city’s western image. He wanted broad, straight streets. As a result of the Cemberlitas hammam’s place in the heart of the Old City, many of the old properties and buildings in the original mahalle were demolished to provide proper space for the new road program. It was also at this time that new public spaces were built: theaters, public parks, cinemas. The baths of the city now had new competition, as these social spaces drew crowds of their own.

But it was Atatürk’s program of westernization, secularization, and nationalism that spelled the end for a majority of the city’s hammams. Modernity meant the construction of modern apartment blocks, complete with modern bathrooms, which deprived the baths of their central hygienic function; secularization meant the end of the old way for the religious endowments, which were placed under new, ministerial control. The income generating institutions, like hammams, faired poorly, and were often sold off to private interests. New social spaces (those mentioned above, but also other state-sponsored institutions) deprived the bath of its traditional social function; and, finally, the nationalist program meant that the hammam was not fit for the Republican Turkey of the future. It symbolized the Ottoman, Oriental past, something which the leaders of the incipient republic were eager to leave behind. By 1939, only some 20-25 hammams were in operation in the city, and most of these were in very bad shape.

Today hammams are supported largely, and in some cases entirely, by external and internal tourism. In fact, Cichocki argues convincingly that the advent of tourism saved Istanbul’s few remaining hammams in the 20th century. She interviewed the management and staff of the Cemeberlitas hammam, who claimed that without tourists their entire operation would fold and all baths in Istanbul would be closed today. Of course, to the western tourist the hammam has become the quintessential “eastern” or “oriental” experience, something viewed as authentic and necessary when visiting Istanbul and Turkey, despite the fact that very few Turks have ever set foot in one (as Cichocki notes). She also mentions the “internal” tourism of some Istanbullers today—those who use the hammam as a means to connect with their own cultural legacy, heritage and history.

This situation is in marked contrast to that which prevails in Finland, where the sauna’s place in Finnish national identity has secured a firm place for it in today’s society and culture.


L.M. Edelsward, Sauna as Symbol: Society and Culture in Finland, NY, 1991.

C.M. Sutyla, The Finnish Sauna in Manitoba, Canadian Centre for Folklore Studies no. 24, Ottawa, 1977.

Cichocki, N. 2005. “Continuity and Change in Turkish Bathing Culture in Istanbul: The Life Story of the Çemberlitas Hamam.” Turkish Studies 6.1: 93-112.

This entry was posted in Baths and Bathing, Turkey. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Nation Building and Baths: A Comparison between the Finnish Sauna and Ottoman Hammam

  1. Great article comparing two different sauna cultures! I love the contrast of nationalistic ideals where one culture abandons their history and another embraces it.

  2. Pingback: Sauna vs. Hammam: A Tale of Two Baths « SaunaScape

  3. Pingback: Culture, Heritage, and the Finnish Sauna | Historical Archaeology in Finland

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s