Having a hamam - The Turkish Bath Experience

No visitor to Turkey should miss out on a Turkish bath. It is not the luxury spa treatment that you might be hoping for, but it is certainly refreshing and often great fun.

The History
The Turks have been having Turkish baths, or hamams, for years. They used to be something of a weekly outing for women since women were only permitted to visit at restricted times. This meant the hamam was very busy on those occasions as for some women they were the only access they had to large quantities of hot water, not only for washing themselves but the laundry too. Of course where there are women there is also gossip and hamams were quite the daughter-in-law hunting grounds of Turkish mothers, seeking the best wives for their sons.

Traditionally and in large cities hamams are separated into male and female sections. Only workers of the same sex are inside and it is not unusual to be naked or topless inside (cue awkward memories of being stripped naked in an Istanbul hamam with my mother and her friend). In tourist resorts they are often mixed, with male masseurs and mercifully most patrons 
keep their swimwear on.

Hamam workers in a large hamam.

The Experience
Turkish baths feature a large steamy marble chamber with several anterooms. The other rooms are changing, waiting or massage rooms. Having slipped and slid your way on the wet marble to a seat you are left to sit and sweat for a while. By the time you are just beyond comfortable with how sweaty you have become one of the hamam men, dressed handsomely in a thin cotton wrap that becomes dangerously translucent when wet, be warned, normally arrives and slaps the marble to indicate that you should approach and lie down.

Assuming you don’t slip to your death on the near-lethal rubber slippers, you lie on the marble. The hamam men are very good at untying bikini straps, but this is simply to gain good scrubbing access to your back. Wearing a loofah mitt you get scrubbed hard all over and rolls and rolls of dead skin peel off. It is disgusting but at the same time it is amazing. Who knew how dirty we are? Once you are thoroughly repulsed with yourself the hamam man tosses bowls of water over you to rinse you off and then covers you in astoundingly soft olive oil soap bubbles which pop deliciously on your skin, and then he will massage you, crack knuckles, and if you’re lucky, wash your hair. 

Inside the main chamber of a hamam.

It is not the most relaxing massage you will ever have. The marble surface you lie on puts pay to that straight away and the hamam men can be fairly heavy-handed, especially with blokes. After all the slippery wallowing on the marble it is not uncommon to start feeling a bit like a beached whale. There can be awkward flash moments for those who are uncomfortable with public nudity and it is possible to cop an unattractive eyeful of someone if you’re unlucky. Combined with the recently undone bikini straps, the potential humiliation factor is high.

Once out of the main chamber of the Turkish bath you are usually offered a drink of apple tea or water and other services like extra massages. At the very least you are wrapped in towels including one over your head that is somehow amusingly folded to leave your ears poking out. After all the grime and wallowing, this get up really restores your self-confidence!

My friend Becki and I. The post-hamam look is a winner!

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Somehow you still come away feeling refreshed though as well as squeaky clean. Having a Turkish bath is a fantastic experience. I urge you to make sure you go, next time you are in Turkey.

Have you visited a hamam? How did you find it?

Photo credits: peretzp and Rafa