Bath Time: Heading to the Turkish Hamam
MIR’s Helen Holter experienced her first Turkish bath as a 17-year-old high school exchange student to Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey. Since then, Helen’s returned to Turkey eight times, taking a bath whenever she goes.
“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” or so goes the saying.
In the Middle East, and especially as I experienced in Turkey, cleanliness has long been a way of life, a ritual, and even a social event far beyond just scrubbing away dirt. It’s a Moslem tradition where the high value this faith puts on water and cleanliness is epitomized by the spirit of a Turkish bath, or hamam.
What do you do when you head to a Turkish hamam? Although they’ve been around for thousands of years, hamams can be a bit intimidating.
Head to a small town, say, the backwaters of Mustafapaşa in Cappadocia or even Mustakfakemalpaşa near Bursa (where I lived), and you’ll usually find separate domed hamam facilities for men and women, and likely a more authentic experience among locals. Cheaper, too.
If gender is a concern, ask which sex your attendant will be; in large cities and in touristy places it’s often a mixed bag. In rural settings it’s traditional to have a same-gender attendant for your Turkish bath.
By all means bring your own or buy your own kese mitt, used for scrubbing you from head to toe. Otherwise, you’ll likely be using a kese that has touched the bodies of many bathers who’ve come before you.
After warming up a bit in a heated room, you can DIY – do it yourself – or pay to have an attendant bathe you. An attendant directs you to a washing area where you sweat a bit, dousing yourself with buckets of warm water to soften your skin, then scrubbing away with a kese mitt. In another variation, an attendant might invite you to lie on a heated marble slab while you work up a sweat, also softening your skin.
“Tamam?” “OK?” the attendant will ask, hoping the water is just right, the soap isn’t in your eyes, and you’re enjoying the experience.
“Tamam!” “OK!” is a good answer. Otherwise, the universal language of pantomiming and gesturing is spoken here. If you’re lucky, in the smaller hamams – rural especially –the washing attendant might begin singing songs of ancient times, echoing in the domes and corners of the hamam. Other Turkish bathers might join in. Unforgettable.
After rinsing you off with buckets of water poured over your head, the attendant invites you to lie down on the hot marble slab. If you have to pay extra, do get a massage; it’s sometimes included in the Turkish bath experience, but be sure to ask.
Wrapped in your Turkish towel, you can sit back and enjoy a cup of hot apple tea or black Turkish tea in the cooling room, joining in conversations with other bathers, or simply taking in the ambience of a Turkish hamam, knowing generations of men and women have done this before you.
(click on photo to see larger version)
(Top photo: Domes of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, where Turkish hamams are abundant. Photo credit: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism)
PUBLISHED: October 3, 2014