I had heard rumours that you had to be naked and that you’d be scrubbed so hard you would nearly bleed, yet, I was curious what all of the fuss was about with a Hamam.
When I visited Turkey for the first time in 2014, I had wanted to go to a Turkish Bath but hadn’t found time. I was scared to go alone and vowed I would do it when I returned. Now I’ve experienced it and I lived to tell the tale.
The local family I was staying with, in Fatih, a local community within the overflowing metropolis of Istanbul asked if I was interested in a Turkish Bath. They explained that their neighbour owned one and he would be happy to have me visit. I anxiously and tentatively said yes, and arranged to go the next day.
The owner of the Hamam met me at the house with his two young grandchildren and we walked down the winding, narrow streets from near Molla Aski Terasi to the Tarihi Historical Hamami. With all of the twists and turns, I thought I might never be able to find my way back home.
As we arrived on the street where the Hamam was located, in broken English the man said “Men only,” and pointed to a door. About 20 steps later we turned a corner and there was a door immediately to our left with a curtain. He said “Women only. You go here.”
He knocked and then spoke with someone inside, in Turkish, from outside the doorway. The next thing I knew, a tall, thin woman came to greet me and introduced herself (in English) as Melitza, the owner’s daughter-in-law.
She welcomed me and invited me to sit in the main area. I looked around at the mixture of tile work that seemed to have no real rhyme or reason to its pattern, bordering the entrance to the bath which was surrounded by marble. There were small rooms with doors along the back wall that looked almost like Catholic confessional rooms but clearly were not. Benches lined one wall and a small table with a drink and a pack of cigarettes were against the other wall, where Melitza took a seat.
It was slightly cooler in the main area than the midday sun outside which was still climbing and had already reached 25+ degrees. There was only one other lady at the Hamam and she was introduced as Fatma. She was a short, stout lady with an ample bosom who walked with her feet turned out as she scurried around in her night-gown-like dress. I later found out that Fatma had been working at this Hamam for 30+ years.
With a big smile, Melitza welcomed me again and began asking where I was from, how long I would be travelling for and if I had ever been to a Hamam. I immediately felt comfortable with her friendly and open personality and concluded that I would be able to ask her anything I needed.
Come to find out, although she does work at the Hamam sometimes, this day she just happened to be there for her own bath experience but wanted to make sure I was comfortable.
We chatted for a few minutes about what the experience would entail and what services I would like to have. The Turkish Bath, peeling and massage would be 35 Turkish Lira (equivalent to less than $17 CAD). They also had a treatment with a combination of a coffee scrub and honey for an additional 20 Lira. I was there to experience it all, and so I did!
Of course, with the thought of coffee and honey being spread all over my body, I thought it time to ask about the dress-code. Melitza explained to me that wearing underwear would be perfectly acceptable as many women do this, however, traditionally women would be completely naked, not just topless. I should do whatever made me comfortable. She explained how she was shy the first time, but now she really enjoys the experience. She was born and raised in Serbia but had married a Turkish man. Now they live in Istanbul. She had her first Hamam experience only a few years before.
I had asked the folks that I was living with about dress-code they had told me I could wear a swimsuit if I wanted, so I had. It was a full swimsuit as I don’t do bikinis. When I heard a better explanation of the peeling process and then about the coffee and honey treatment I decided that I did not want my swimsuit to be covered. So, just like that, it was decided that I would be going full monty. Why not? I was there for the real experience, I’m not ashamed of my body and it helped that I was the only one there at that particular time. However, I was well aware that others could arrive at any minute.
Melitza explained that they would give me everything I needed to enjoy my experience. Fatma then came over and handed me a small yellow basket with shampoo, a washcloth and two large towels made of tea-towel-like material. I was given a key to one of the small changing rooms at the back and told to wrap the small towel around me and that the bigger one would be used for later.
Fatma then smiled a crooked, but uniquely charming smile, took me by the hand, led me up the stairs through the first marble doorway and then through the second doorway where I was enveloped in the humidity like a heavy, wet blanket.
It was silent, although when you spoke you felt dwarfed by the size and importance of the great 400-year-old building that seemed to talk back to you through its echo. The large room was about half the size of a high school gymnasium, with natural light trickling in through the carved holes in the beautiful, dome-shaped, marble ceiling.
In the centre of the room, directly below the dome, was a large square marble slab about two feet thick and 8 feet by 8 feet in diameter. It demanded attention, but I wasn’t quite sure of its purpose. The walls were lined with ancient marble sinks, each with its own hot and cold water taps, about 15 separate washing stations in total.
Fatma led me to one of the stations, turned on the hot and cold water, hung my towel on a rod above the sink and there I was … stark naked in this large room where I was about to bathe myself, publicly!
Through words and hand motions, Fatma explained that I should pour water over myself, but not to use soap or shampoo yet, just water. For the next 30-45 minutes I breathed in hot, humid air and poured warm water over myself until my skin softened. I alternated between hot and cool water every once in a while. The humidity was hard to get used to, so I found a bit of cool water helped me endure while still softening my skin to prepare for the peeling process.
Approximately 45 minutes after arriving, Fatma returned and took me out to the front waiting area to cool off and get some fresh air. I sat and chatted with Melitza while other women and children began to arrive at the Hamam for their Sunday cleaning ritual. Melitza prepared me for the next section of the process which would be the peeling, washing and massage part. She told me that I would know when to roll over as Fatma would slap my ass.
Yes. You read that right! This local woman was going to slap my naked ass to communicate with me that I needed to roll over. I won’t lie, I giggled …. slightly horrified!
When Fatma led me back into the sauna area, she motioned for me to lie down on my stomach on the large marble slab in the middle of the room. She threw some warm water over the marble slab so that my skin wouldn’t stick to it and I laid down near the edge, on my tummy, and tried to find a way to get my boobs comfortable while being smushed against warm marble.
Before I could even find a half comfortable position, Fatma was busy ‘peeling’ my dead skin away with a rubber mitt, with rubber teeth. It is similar to being exfoliated, but with something soft and rubbery tugging at your skin instead of a loofah which is hard and scratchy. Somehow she balanced the pressure of her body and the pressure of her scrubbing so that my skin started to roll off in little packets. She scrubbed all over my back, neck, bum and legs and then slapped my ass and mumbled something in Turkish.
I guess it’s time to roll over!
Now, being naked in public is one thing. Having another nearly naked woman peel the dead skin off you is another. But really, the hardest part to get over is lying face up with your private areas exposed.
I awkwardly rolled over on the wet slab and laid face up while Fatma continued to scrub my legs, stomach and breasts. Sounds weird right? Well, I can’t lie, it is weird, at least for me! I just kept telling myself that she’s done this for 30+ years, she’s seen everything by now! And, trust me, there’s nothing sexual about it.
I won’t lie, it was hard for me to let a stranger rub and scrub all over, peeling off the dead skin. I’m sure she could see my tension. I couldn’t open my eyes, as I couldn’t bear to look at her while she was scrubbing me.
She tugged gently on my arm and motioned for me to sit up where she held my arm against her body and methodically scrubbed everything clean, one arm, then the other.
By this time, an elderly woman had entered the sauna area in her underwear and was sitting in the corner gingerly pouring warm water over her body. On the other side of the large room, two women and a young girl of about five years old were frolicking and giggling as they bathed one another.
The young girl’s enthusiasm for bath time made me smile. It was at that moment that I understood that the Hammam was a tradition that was being passed down. Once a necessity and a place for people to clean themselves once a week, for lack of having access to water at their own homes, but now, it was more of a tradition and ritual to be shared with the younger generations. Occasionally I opened my eyes and saw the joy of this little girl and heard her squeals of laughter as her mom dumped buckets of water over her head. Each ear-piercing squeal made the corners of my mouth turn up in a delicate little grin.
I had heard about the peeling process and people described it as being rubbed raw and then roughly pummelled with a massage. For me, although slightly uncomfortable, it really wasn’t anything at all like being rubbed raw or being pummelled!
The soft teeth of the rubber mitt hitched slightly on my skin and then continued down my body taking a thin layer with it. It wasn’t painful. It wasn’t even uncomfortable. Mostly it just felt like being scrubbed super clean or having a massage with no oil.
When Fatma was done scrubbing me down, she went to get water to clean the dead skin off me. I made the mistake of opening my eyes and seeing the rolls of my own greyish skin laying lifeless all over my body. Had I really been that dirty? I was sorry I looked!
Before I could be too disgusted, a bucket of warm water hit my back, then each of my sides and my front. The dead skin washed away, down the drains, leaving me naked and one shade lighter than when I had arrived!
I was directed back to the wet marble slab and laid down on my front again. This time, Fatma rubbed a soft washcloth with soap all over my body and then gave me a soap massage. The massage lasted about 10 – 15 minutes and was concentrated on the knots in my back and neck, but also on my legs and feet. It was an ok massage, but nothing like the joys of going to a professional massage therapist for treatment back home. It was more like a boyfriend giving me a massage that he felt obligated to provide. It wasn’t bad, but I’m not sure that it was great either. Another slap on the ass and I rolled over again to have my front soaped up.
The process of being rinsed with buckets of water continued until all of the soap was washed off. Fatma motioned to me to use the water to clean my private areas, and then back to the slab. This time my large tea-towel-like coverup had been spread out on the slab drenched in water. I got uncomfortably comfortable on the towel, face down and then the sweet, delicious smell of coffee wafted past my nose. It was like a little slice of heaven as she covered my body with coffee grinds and began to use them to gently exfoliate my soft, unprotected skin.
Once both sides of my body were amply covered in fragrant coffee grinds, she gently exfoliated my face. The heavenly coffee aroma made me relax and smile, despite the fact that I was sitting naked in public covered in coffee grinds.
Fatma washed the coffee off with buckets of water and then allowed me to wash it from my private areas where the water had carried the coffee grinds on its way off my body. Then she sat me down, poured warm water over my head, washed and conditioned my hair.
I climbed back on the slab one last time for the application of the honey treatment. Pure, natural honey mixed with water was drizzled all over me and then spread around and left to melt into my skin for a few minutes before being washed away again.
Fatma slapped me on the ass one last time and drizzled honey over my front. The scent made my mouth water. Luckily with the honey mixed with water, it was much less sticky than I expected and it washed away easily with one more quick soapy washdown. Fatma finished washing my hair and then motioned for me to cover up and head back to the waiting area.
Oops! I hadn’t brought my second towel in. My first towel was soaked and covered with coffee and honey and there I was naked. Now what?
Fatma chuckled and shook her head at me and then asked Melitza to grab my towel from my changing room. I wrapped up and headed to the waiting area to sit, cool off and chat. There were a few ladies arriving and preparing to enter the sauna area, a couple of women were cooling off after their first 40 minutes or so and Melitza was there waiting to ask me all about my experience.
I sat for another hour, had a lemon drink and chatted with Melitza about Serbia and Turkey. And why women choose to cover their heads and bodies and why not. She explained the challenges of being a Serbian, non-covering woman who married into a family where covering was expected and that she has always stood her ground explaining that they can wear what they wish and she will wear what she wishes. She told me about her psychology background and a school she had opened in Serbia to help special needs children learn better math skills through different teaching methods. What an interesting lady! I’m so glad that I met her and took the time to hear her story.
Eventually, I decided that I needed to get lunch seeing as I had skipped breakfast and it was already 3 pm. I put my swimsuit and clothes back on and Melitza’s mother-in-law walked up the hill with me, back to my apartment.
As I think back on the experience I am so glad I did it. Not only was it an interesting local experience, but also a freeing of my mind and liberation of my body. In a society where women spend their days covered, it was an interesting contrast to see them uncover completely as an indulgence in themselves.
If you are visiting Turkey, I highly recommend taking in a Hamam experience, be it a completely local one like I did, or a softer, tourist version with a little more of the privacy you are used to.
If you want the local experience, don’t go to one of the expensive tourist-driven Hamams in Sultanhamet. Dig a little deeper and find a family-owned and operated one that has been around for many years, for the authentic experience.
I’ve travelled far and wide, visiting many places more than once, still, my favourite country of all is Turkey. If you are curious about other adventurous or authentic experiences you might be able to have on a trip to Turkey, let’s talk!