Travel: Bathe like an Ottoman – Hammam, the Turkish Bath
Since the moment we started planning the trip to Turkey, I know I NEED to find a Turkish bath house to give myself a true Hammam experience.
I am always fascinated with all the different bath rituals from different cultures – when I was in my teens, I went to Japan with my family to experience their natural hot spring public bath house in the mountains, it was the first time I was introduce to the concept of public bath house, in the beginning it was definitely intimidating to get completely butt naked and bath with strangers, but once I got used to it, I actually really like this public bath house idea. Since I moved to New York, I tried out some public bathhouses in the city to explore the bathing experiences from different cultures – from Russian Banya at the Mermaid Spa around Coney Island to Roman bath at Aire Ancient Baths in Tribeca – but I never get to try a Turkish Hammam bath yet.
There are many historical Haman in Istanbul, they can be slightly different in styles, but they all have the same basic formats and facilities. I asked the concierge at the hotel for their recommendation for a good traditional Hammam that’s not too touristy, he pointed me the way to Galatasaray Haman, Beyoglu.
Galatasaray Hamam is one of the famous Turkish baths that has been consistently serving domestic and foreign visitors. The Hamam has marble slabs in the soğukluk, the cooling area, which you can get a great massage in semi-privacy. The steam room is very hot, since it’s also used by locals –that’s how they like it. The central large and hot marble platform, göbektaşi, is also very hot, so you need to lay towels to be able to lie on it.
I didn’t really know anything about Hamam, thank goodness that there are some guidelines in the pamphlets from hotel concierge, which gave me a little preparation and didn’t make a fool of myself. And here’s the basically the walk through of what one needs to know according to my experience.
- First, talk to the yanasma (the room keeper) and decide on the level of treatment you want. Self service? Wash with attendant? What services include in each package? I chose the full package, which includes a scrub down, foam bath, massage and full bath. You’ll pay the receptionist and they’ll take you to a change area, usually your own lockable room, where you’ll undress and leave your things.
- ‘Undress’ means pretty much what you want it to mean. Most Hammams have separate steam rooms for men and women. In this particular Hammam, men and women are both given a pestemal (loincloth), takunya (traditional wooden clogs) and a tea towel — men usually wears the tea towel around the waist throughout the whole service, but women can throw caution, as it were, to the winds. Most Turkish women subtly drape themselves with their cloth when they’re not actually bathing, but if you prefer to bask nude no-one will bat much of an eyelid. If you’re feeling shy, part or all of a swimsuit is acceptable. I put on the tiny little pestemal, and covered myself (barely) with the tea towel to travel from the changing room to the haman. The takunya definitely comes in handy on the super slippery wet marble floor!
- Once you entered the hammam, lie on the heated marble platform for about 20 min. the idea is to warm up your body and sweat, loosening dirt and toxins in preparation for your wash.
- If you’re going self-service, follow this up with a loofah-and-soap rub-down and douse yourself with water from the marble basins. If you’ve forked out for an attendant, they’ll catch up with when they think you’re ready. My attendant was a super motherly Turkish woman who doesn’t speak a word of English, wearing only her underwear, she slides me to the edge of the göbektaşı from where I was and sluiced with tepid water, then took away my little tea towel… now I’m topless, too, just like her!
- First up is a dry massage with a kese (rough mitt). Depending on your attendant, this experience can be a delicious scrub down, or a tumultuous maddness. I thought I’d need to use some kind of international language of charade to bring it down a notch or two when she first started, but after she scrubbed down every inched of my skin on my body thoroughly, I have to that the exfoliating experience was quite enjoyable.
- Next will be the soapy foam bath. The attendant will work up an almighty lather with an enormous bath cloth and squeeze it all over you: it’s a bit like taking a bubble bath without the bath. She let me covered in the mountain of bubbles for a while, then worked into every inch of me again, followed by more sluicing again. Next, shampoo. She sat down on a little bench and asked me to sit in front of her, unbraided my hair and lathered up my full head of hair, there were so much bubble that at some point all the bubbles were flowing down from my face, as I was about to ask for a towel to clean my face, she pulled my long hair forward and used my hair and all the bubbles to give my face a scrub-down. Even though it was very gentle, I can’t say I was expecting that. One last sluicing, and you’re clean as a whistle. The shiny kind.
- Next, she laid me back down on the marble, and started the massage session. She rubbed through my back, my legs, turned me around and rubbed through my front, and set me up for a neck massage. And that was the end of the service. She gestured me to laid back down on the marble to relax more, and shower whenever I’m ready to leave.
It’s not my first time to be topless (or almost naked, since the loincloth didn’t really cover anything really) in a public bathhouse, but it is definitely the first time I was being served and scrubbed down thoroughly by a topless woman as well. Call me old fashion, but there are definitely moments that I felt a bit awkward, but as soon as I got over it, I thought it was very liberating and it felt really relaxing.
After the whole treatment, I definitely feel the lightness in my muscles, and my mind in pleasantly elastic. I guess this is what the hammam is really about, no wonder the tradition is passed down from generation to generation and still is one of the most do when you visit Turkey. If you have a chance to visit Istanbul, make sure you make some time to have a good Turkish bath.
(Since most women are topless in the Hammam, I didn’t get to take my camera with me for photos, and I can’t go into the man’s Hammam, photos in this articles are taken from internet sources.)