There’s something in the water in Istanbul. And it’s not just the thousands of fish plucked from the gleaming Bosphorus every day. The Ottoman Empire ruled for over 500 years and left behind some ancient traditions and rituals, some that I’m seeking out to learn about myself. And today, I’m going to discover what happens in a Turkish bath. The process of a Turkish bath stems from ancient Greek and Roman bathing practices. This act of cleansing has historically been linked to purification rituals. But don’t expect a long soak in the hot water as Muslim custom has always preferred flowing water rather than immersive baths.
hammam please: a first timer's guide to the Turkish bath
Public bathing is not for the prudish. While most hamami have separate male and female quarters, you will be washed publicly by a stranger in front of strangers. Nowadays, the idea of visiting a sauna or spa is more associated with relaxation and beautification. The relaxation part of a Turkish bath is most appealing to me and hey, I’m not going to pass up an opportunity to be pampered.
Time To Get Nude
Visitors first enter the camekan. This is where bathers undress and prepare for the hammam experience. The bath house I visit is divided into male and female bathing quarters. I’m handed a folded cloth (peştemal), which to me looks like an oversized tea towel, and then led to the male changing area by a bushy-haired attendant. Here, there are private rooms to strip and store your belongings. After removing my clothes, I wrap the thin cloth around me, slip into a pair of wooden sandals (nalın) and make my way to the hot bath house (hararet).
Sweat Baby Sweat
I’m greeted by my man-sized loofer. His name is Omar. He’s smaller and less hairier than my previous attendant. But size doesn’t necessarily matter when inside a Turkish hammam. Omar guides me into a beautiful marble bathing area and it’s time to lie down, switch off from the world and soak up the atmosphere. If only these walls could talk. I’m sure they would tell stories of Sultans and tales of the millions of people to have walked through those doors. I lie on the heated marble top to allow the steam to open up the pores and prepare the skin for the cleanse.
Rub A Dub Dub
After about 15 minutes, it’s time to get physical. Omar starts with a dry rub. The sweating process should have lifted the dirt from my pores, making them easier to clean. It’s three minutes scrubbing on one side, three minutes on the other with the finishings touches sitting up. Next comes the soap. Lots of it. The process of ‘washing’ is more akin with a rental car going through a car wash. It’s clear that Omar doesn’t care too much for the welfare of my internal organs. I’m lathered with soap until I’m a bubbly pile of flesh. He then splashes me with a bowl of clean water.
That’s All Folks
We exit the main bath room to a smaller area used to wash. Omar again covers me from head to toe in soap and then repeatedly douses bowls of water over me. From here, the hands on experience concludes and you are free to enjoy the spa or to sit in the soğukluk (cooling room) to relax with a refreshing drink. I choose to head back inside to the marble bathing area, lie down to let the water dry and reflect on my bath.
Find Your Turkish Bath Experience
There are plenty of hamami around the city. Each one provides an authentic and hygienic bathhouse to enjoy the hammam experience. Reservations are usually not required but feel free to call ahead if you wish. I’ve visited the below hamami upon my travels to Istanbul:
Built in 1584, I guarantee that you’ll feel as royal as an Ottoman Sultan when you walk through the doors. The traditional bath house is located close to the Grand Bazaar. A traditional hammam experience provided by an attendant costs TRY 125. For an additional TRY 75, you can splurge on a massage after your Turkish bath.
Larger and grander in scale, Cağaloğlu Hamamı was built in 1741. For approximately €40, a bath here includes access to the hamami and an attendant to ensure you’re squeaky clean from head to toe.
Note: A tip is generally expected by the attendants. Once you’ve redressed, you’ll usually find him or her waiting for you. 10 – 20% of the service price is considered appropriate.
Have you also experienced a Turkish hammam? What was your experience like? Make sure to share your story with us below!