What we can learn from ancient practices of public bathing.
In contemporary Western society, we mostly do it in private, in isolation. But in ancient cultures across the world, bathing was considered to be a communal act. It was about more than washing the body; it was a ritualistic, collective experience, which brought people together. The batt house itself acted as an important cultural gathering space for this social interaction to take place.
Public bathing in Ancient Greece goes back to the sixth century BC. Although initially constructed inside gymnasiums and used by athletes for hygiene and restoration, the bath house became a cornerstone of public life and represented a place for conversation and leisure. Not only did bathing here allow Ancient Greeks to cleanse the body, but it also allowed them to exercise their intellect.
The Ancient Romans elevated this idea by building highly elaborate bath houses, like the incredibly ornate imperial baths at Caracalla. These detailed and grand structures are indicative of the role that bathing played in life. You didn’t just wash at the bath house, you went there to listen to lectures, engage in political debate, read, eat, exercise, and connect with other members of the community—for hours on end, every day. As Israeli archaeologist and educator, Estee Dvorjetski writes in Leisure, Pleasure, and Healing: Spa Culture and Medicine in Ancient Eastern Mediterranean, “The Romans deserve the credit for combining the spiritual, social, and thereputic value of bathing and exalting it into an art. Baths were the focus of communal life offering a place for relaxation, social gathering, and worship.”
Bathing also played an important role in Turkey. While Ancient Greek and Roman bath houses provided lively social activity, the Turkish hammam (Arabic for “spreader of warmth”) was a place of rest, quiet, and prayer. Typically made up of three rooms—a hot steam room for scrubbing and massage; a warm room for bathing; and a cool room for resting—the hammam was based around the notion of purifying the body and the soul, becoming an important institution in cities across the Middle East. Historian, bureaucrat and Arabic writer Hilal al-Sabi’ (969-1056) estimated that Baghdad alone had around 60,000 bath houses at its peak in Medieval times.
Throughout Asia, too, public bathing took on a ritualistic function. The Japanese sentō first played a religious role during the Nara period (710–784), allowing Buddhists to cleanse their sins by immersing in water. By the 17th century, the Japanese bath house had become part of the social fabric with people of different genders and classes coming together in the communal act of bathing. The Japanese love of bathing can also be seen in the enduring relevance of the onsen. There are over 30,000 of these naturally occurring hot spring in Japan today, and while they may be popular tourist traps they hold great cultural significance. Samurais used them to heal wounds in the 12th-17th centuries, but by the Edo era (17th-19th century) they had spread to the masses.
Public bathing may have taken on different iterations throughout history, but what these examples have in common is the bath house’s ability to bring people together. We’re at a point in time where more of us are feeling more lonely than ever, which is impacting our mental and physical health. As a response to this and the stresses of city life, we try to seek peace by going inward. Self-care is often a singular act; we might practice mindfulness or meditation to find a sense of stillness. But what if we used these practices to go outward, to make connections? Collective bathing could be an antidote or at least a good place to start.