A brief history of thermal bathing

The growing interest in hot springs and taking the waters continues. Let’s look at a history of thermal bathing. 

Thermal bathing has seen a surge of global interest in the last few years. The Global Wellness Institute tagged this growing trend in 2022, and Spa Business did the same, covering developments in thermal bathing in New Zealand, Australia, and the US, where, the magazine stated, the hot springs scene was “on fire.” And it’s still growing.

The buoyant enthusiasm has been attributed to an increased consumer desire to connect with nature and other people – probably related to the isolation of the COVID pandemic. Bathing in hot springs and warm pools is largely a social activity, and many industry thought leaders predicted that communal activities would see a surge when restrictions were lifted.  

A history of thermal bathing: connected with the cultures and traditions of civilizations throughout the ages

Thermal bathing and hot springs have a rich history connected with the cultures and traditions of civilizations throughout the ages. These practices date back to prehistoric times, with evidence suggesting that early humans used both bathhouses and natural resources for bathing, healing, socializing, and ritual purposes. Archaeological findings indicate that hot springs were used by ancient civilizations around the world, including the Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Japanese, and Native Americans.

Bath waters come from a variety of places, while geothermally heated hot springs are found in regions with volcanic activity, where magma heats groundwater. The mineral composition of hot springs can vary greatly depending on the geological conditions of the region, which can affect their purported therapeutic properties.

Here’s an overview of the history of thermal bathing:

Ancient Civilizations

Indus Valley Civilization (around 2500 BCE): One of the earliest evidences of public bathing facilities is the Great Bath of Mohenjo-Daro. This archaeological find suggests that baths were used for ritual purification.

Ancient Egypt (around 2000 BCE): Egyptians are said to have used thermal baths for relaxation and cleanliness – as cleanliness was believed at the time to bring one closer to the Gods. The Egyptians reportedly used volcanic caldera as tubs and/or placed hot stones in the water to create heat and steam. 

Ancient Greece (from 500 BCE): Greeks recognized the healing properties of hot springs and built baths near these natural resources. These facilities were centers for social gatherings, athletic training, and philosophical discussions. The historian Herodotus (484-410 B.C.) is said to have been the first to take note of the curative properties of the waters at Icaria, now known as the most radioactive spring in the world

Ancient Rome (from 500 BCE to 476 CE): The Romans expanded on Greek bathing practices to develop sophisticated thermal baths, known as thermae. The Romans built sophisticated bath complexes, turning them into centers of social life and leisure. The famous Baths of Caracalla and the Baths of Diocletian in Rome are examples of such complexes. Romans believed in the therapeutic properties of bathing to treat various ailments.

Middle Ages

Byzantine Empire (330–1453 CE): The tradition of Roman baths continued in the Byzantine Empire, though often with more emphasis on smaller, private baths.

Japanese Onsen (from at least 8th century CE): The onsen, or Japanese hot spring bath, has been an important part of Japanese culture for centuries. These baths, often located in scenic natural settings, are integral to Japanese bathing culture and have been historically significant for both their healing properties and their role in Japanese social life.

Islamic World (from 8th century CE): The Islamic tradition of ritual cleanliness led to the widespread construction of hammams, or public bathhouses, which became integral to Islamic cities for both hygiene and socialization.

Europe (5th–15th centuries CE): After the fall of the Roman Empire, large public baths became less common in the West. However, small, private baths remained popular among the elite, and public bathhouses continued in some areas.

Renaissance to Early Modern Period

Europe (14th–17th centuries CE): Public bathing dropped off in popularity in Europe due to the spread of plague, smallpox, and syphilis, and the growing interest in theories of contagion in medical circles. A resurgence came later as places Bath, England, and Spa, Belgium became famous for their healing waters.

18th to 19th Century

Europe and America: The age of Enlightenment and advancements in medical understanding increased the popularity of thermal baths. Spa towns grew, offering health treatments and becoming fashionable social destinations.

20th Century to Present

The development of modern medicine and changing social norms led to a decline in traditional thermal bathing. However, there has been a resurgence in global interest in natural and holistic therapies, leading to a revival of spa culture and thermal bathing worldwide, often blended with modern wellness and spa treatments.


Spa Executive is published by Book4Time, the leader in guest management, revenue and mobile solutions for the most exclusive spas, hotels, and resorts around the globe. Learn more at book4time.com.

Image by chandlervid85 on Freepik

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