I left dehydrated, raw and with my right shoulder, already bad from a chronic injury, near immobile and needing the “good” drugs. I had just experienced my first hammam.
The hammam, also known as the Turkish bath, has been a part of Turkish culture for centuries, becoming most prominent during the Ottoman Empire. While satisfying the religious requirement for cleansing both the body and spirit, the hammam also became a social outlet for women confined primarily to the home. It was here that local information would be shared, mothers would seek out suitable wives for their sons, and life events celebrated.
It was advertised as a historic hammam since 1481. I chose my service, being advised that the “scrub IS Turkish bath” when I tried to bypass that part of the experience. The soap massage sounded so much more appealing! I resigned myself to the traditional experience, paid my fee, and was handed off to a burly gentleman. He motioned me to follow him outside to a dimly lit alley where I was deposited in front of a very plain door,nothing like the ornately carved one I’d just exited. The sign beside the door read “Woman’s Hamami”.
A matronly woman with kind eyes ushered me wordlessly into a windowed change room and handed me a peştemal,the traditional light sheet to cover the body, and a pair of wooden slippers called nalin that were made for someone with much larger feet!
The woman motioned me to follow and I shuffled my way into the camekan, the warm room, where she promptly yanked the sheet from my near naked body and motioned for me to lie down on the large marble slab in the middle of the room – the göbek taşi or belly stone – and “sleep”.
I was curious and sat, looking around the room at the domed ceiling, the Iznik tiles, and the rows of sinks with copper trays leaning against the wall behind the taps. Water flowed freely from one of the taps, pouring onto the floor, ensuring the humidity remained high in the large room.
Found still sitting a few minutes later, I was chastised to lie down and sleep without a single word spoken. I did as told and quickly began to relax into the hot stone. I almost dozed off when my warden came in wearing lovely turquoise lace panties . . . and nothing else.
Modesty be damned! There is no such thing in a hammam.
I was doused with water, then scrubbed front and back with the traditional keşe, my limbs pulled and rotated so that every square inch of flesh was scoured of dry, dead, and even possibly living, skin. I was rinsed again, then covered in slippery suds, a soothing massage after the torturous scrub. Last, she washed my face and hair with the same vigor she’d attacked my body.
Rinsed clean, I was once again directed to lie back and sleep. I relished the few moments to let the experience sink in, finding that I did actually feel quite calm and relaxed. Too soon, she returned, dressed now, with a thick towel to dry myself. My time was up.
I must have tipped well because her she grinned and blew me a kiss as I headed back out into the cold December evening. I knew this wouldn’t be my last visit to a hammam.
I did try another hammam. While following the main format, I found the second to be more spa-like than the traditional hammam, with greater emphasis on modesty. I also discovered it was not segregated when a male acquaintance wandered in as I lay on my stomach, soapy butt cheeks bare to the world. Always a good idea to find out in advance – had he arrived a few minutes earlier, he would have found me buck naked in the sauna!