Hammams: sweating, scrubbing and socializing

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For thousands of years men and women across the Middle East have retreated to their local hammams to sweat, get scrubbed and socialize with friends.

Public bathing dates back to the Greeks and the Romans. And though the tradition faded in much of the Western world, hammams remained popular in the Middle East, flourishing under the Ottomans --hence their English name "Turkish baths."

The first Islamic hammams were annexed to mosques to facilitate these ablutions. They soon became "very key urban facilities" said Sibley, promoting health and hygiene and providing a social meeting space, particularly for women.

Hammams vary widely in function and form, but the majority are strictly segregated between sexes and have three connecting rooms -- one hot, one warm and one cold. Typically hot is for steaming, warm for scrubbing, and cooler rooms are for lounging and relaxing. Public versions exist far and wide, from North Africa to Asia Minor, and from Spain to Eastern Europe.

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