"Cleanliness is next to godliness" is of the sort of platitude that grandmothers once embroidered on samplers and that mothers once invoked in the futile attempt to get children to wash behind their ears - not knowing, probably, that many of Christendom's early philosophers completely disagreed. Indeed, because the pagan Greeks had made a cult both of personal cleanliness and of the human body, some early Christians thought that excessive attention to bodily matters was tantamount to apostasy.
By contrast, Muslims, from the time of the Prophet, had adopted ritual washing as a part of their religion and, in addition, enthusiastically advocated the healthy Greek attitude towards personal hygiene.
The Muslims, to be sure, dissociated themselves from the somewhat sybaritic attitude of the Greeks towards the human body. But at the same time they preserved that exceptionally civilized institution which the West calls "the Turkish Bath" and the Arabs call hammam. In the early days, in fact, every Muslim town and city had at least one public bath and some communities had hundreds. During the Islamic era in Spain, for example, 10th century Cordoba counted 900.
With the advent of central water supplies and modern plumbing the public bath in the Middle East, as in Europe, declined in popularity - just as, in the West, the sauna was catching on. But the hammam still exists, and in some poorer or less modernized communities is important to hygiene as well as to pleasure.
Traditional communities in the Middle East today often provide a separate hammam for men and women, while poorer communities either divide the bath houses into men's and women's sections, or set aside certain days during the week when the facilities can be used by women only. But the layout, typically, is the same: three main sections which include a combination reception and cold room, a medium-temperature room and a steam room. Bathers enter the changing room, wrap a sort of sarong around their waists - modesty is carefully preserved - and then proceed directly to the steam room. After some time there, relaxing in the hot steam, they summon attendants and stretch out for a vigorous rubdown - with either a rough-textured glove made of horsehair or coarse fabric, or with a pumice stone. Sometimes, when an expert attendant is available, they may also, for a supplementary sum, add a massage.
Next, when they have had enough of the steam room, they return to the medium-temperature room, wait till their temperature drops and then return to the cold room where they splash in cool water, rub down with a towel and then relax with a cup of tea or coffee. More elaborate baths have additional rooms with more subtle gradations of temperature, but the principle is the same.
The water in the baths is heated by a system of flues which conduct the heat from a wood or coal fire under the floors - thus the typical wooden hammam slippers - and sometimes through the walls. These heat-conducting systems were developed in the great Roman baths of classical antiquity, but the Arabs, in preserving them, also accommodated them to varied and ingenious architectural forms. Indeed, the hammam, throughout the Muslim world, from the humblest to the most elaborate, shows Islamic functional architecture at its best, particularly with respect to the problem of heat conservation and lighting. The use of the dome - a form not available to classical architects - was perhaps the greatest contribution of their Islamic successors to these buildings.
The domes were often pierced with geometric patterns of glass, so that sunlight was transmitted into the deep interior of the bath, and formed patterns of light on the walls and floor. The wealthier communities, moreover, often spent large sums on the decoration of the hammam. They were often faced inside with marble and alabaster and had elaborately carved ablution basins, walls tiled with the exquisite ceramics of Turkey and Iran, and beautifully woven hangings and cushions for the bathers to recline upon.
During the Renaissance, European travelers to the East were so struck by the bath houses and the general cleanliness of the people that on their return to the West, they built their own. Hence the "Turkish Baths" of Europe, hence "Turkish" towels. Like so much else in classical culture that died in Europe during the early Middle Ages, it was left to the Muslim world first to preserve and then to reintroduce to the West advances that had been made during classical antiquity.
These advances are very much part of daily life today in many parts of the Muslim world, especially - and appropriately - in Turkey. There, the washing facilities in private homes may sometimes be rudimentary, but no village and no quarter of a large city is without its local hammam, regularly patronized by the population as frequently as time and finances allow. Many of the Turkish baths were built in the days of the Ottoman empire as a part of an endowed mosque complex or kulliye - both to provide a source of income for the mosque and its schools, and as a public charity - and are still used today.
Paul Lunde, a graduate of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, is a staff writer for Aramco World Magazine.