Delving into Turkish culture, I decided to visit a hammam, a bathhouse, in Istanbul, and chose one of the more upmarket establishments. I’m always up for adventure, but when nudity is involved, I prefer to play it safe. Off I went to ‘Cemberlitas Hamami’, near the Grand Bazaar in Sultanahmet, to experience a Turkish bath.
After choosing a body wash and scrub from the menu of services, I bid my boyfriend goodbye and set off into the female only section, armed with a scrubbing mitt, a small rectangular bar of soap, and a locker key. Once inside the locker room, I self-consciously undressed, leaving on my bikini bottoms.
The attendant gave me a “peptemal,” similar to an oversized tea towel. I wrapped myself in it, and proceeded nervously into the mysterious realm of the hammam, unsure of what I would encounter behind the heavy wooden doors.
I was greeted by a moist waft of steam, and when the door closed behind me, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the appropriately named “hot room.” Light streamed in from numerous tiny round skylights in the high domed ceiling, bathing the marble interior in a warm glow.
In the middle of the room lay an enormous round, flat stone, around the perimeter of which visitors were being washed and scrubbed within an inch of their lives. Women appeared to be “baking” on the stone’s center. Around the outer edge of the round room, bathing areas featured marble basins containing warm, clear water.
Having absolutely no understanding of hammam protocol and suddenly feeling very self-conscious, I headed to one of the marble basins to wash myself. To my amused embarrassment, as I tried to lather up, I realized my little yellow bar of soap wasn’t soap at all, but a plastic token!
Looking around, most of the women held the same token, only in different colors. Later I realized yellow was for a body scrub, and red for a scrub and massage.
Feeling a bit silly, I approached one of the women who had just finished scrubbing someone senseless, and showed my token. She abruptly motioned toward the center of the stone, so I gingerly climbed on, carefully avoiding the other bodies.
Surely this was meant to be relaxing, I thought, lying back with my towel still wrapped firmly around me. The warmth from the heated stone began to spread through me, and the soft rays of light sneaking through shapes in the domed ceiling filled me with a sense of calm.
Not for long! The hammam, is a busy, noisy place. A mother tried to calm her shrieking baby boy while her young daughter was being scrubbed. Naked women sat on a marble step, chatting, while they waited for their friends. I began to feel very self-conscious, not of my nakedness but of my modesty — I was one of the only women wearing bikini bottoms.
Everyone else seemed unconcerned, free and liberated. Bodies of all different shapes and sizes splayed out and bounced around under the scrubber’s mitt.
Then it was my turn. I moved to the outside, lay on my towel facing upwards, and handed over my mitt and token. The attendant produced a piece of gauze that she expertly dunked into the water and then filled with air, pumping it over my body and covering me in millions of soapy suds.
Bracing myself for the scrub, I was pleasantly surprised by the firm but gentle exfoliation. I was then flipped over like a breakfast sausage and the ritual was repeated. I wondered how many of these the attendant performed in an average day.
Next, I was shepherded to a basin, where I sat on a marble step and was doused in warm water, removing my protective bubble and returning me to my birthday suit. My hair was shampooed before the attendant left me to my own devices for a final rinse.
Squeaky clean, I made my way to the next room, where women waited for massages, wrapped in fluffy towels. As I didn’t opt for a massage, my hammam experience had come to an end.
After drying off and dressing, I entered into the balmy Istanbul night feeling a little bemused, a little relaxed and very, very, clean.
If You Go
This is Sarah Chamberlain’s first article to appear in Go World Travel Magazine.