Bath Time: Heading to the Turkish Hamam

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.

Helen Holter loves exploring the ruins of Ephesus in her favorite country, Turkey <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

Helen Holter loves exploring the ruins of Ephesus in her favorite country, Turkey
Photo credit: Helen Holter

“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.

Hamams: City and CountryIf you visit a famous Turkish hamam in Istanbul, often jammed with tourists, with sometimes co-ed facilities in a glorious building with pinhole stars in the domed ceilings, you’ll likely pay top dollar for this luxurious experience.

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.

Throughout history, typically even the smallest dusty town had a hamam, as here in Midyat, Turkey <br>Photo credit: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture & Tourism

Throughout history, typically even the smallest dusty town had a hamam, as here in Midyat, Turkey
Photo credit: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture & Tourism

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.

ClothestimeOff come the clothes. In some rural places, modesty reigns and you’ll be asked to wear your bottom underwear. (Younger girls often wear swimsuits.) You’ll change in a private dressing room called a camekan, wrapping a thin cotton cloth, a pestemal, around your body like a sarong. Save money and bring your own shampoo, soap and, if you have one, a pestemal. (They’re often sold at the hamam entrance.) You’ll be offered wooden or plastic sandals to keep from slipping.

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.

Some hotels offer Turkish hamams where families can bathe in private Photo credit: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism

Some hotels offer Turkish hamams where families can bathe in private
Photo credit: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism

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.

Lather. Scrub. Rinse. Repeat.Now it’s time to lather up! You wonder if Turks have perfected some magic solution to create such bubbly, frothy foam as the attendant lathers you up from head to toe, scrubs you from head to toe, and repeats for those extra dirty parts. What a marvel! That kese scrubbing mitt is a wonder at peeling away layers of dirt and dead skin from your body.

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.

Recently restored from the 1500s, Istanbul's Kılıç Ali Paşa is one of Istanbul's most beautiful hamams <br>Photo credit: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism

Recently restored from the 1500s, Istanbul’s Kılıç Ali Paşa is one of Istanbul’s most beautiful hamams
Photo credit: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism

Breaking a SweatYou can stay put on the stone slab for as long as you like, but at some point you need to face the world again! When you’re ready to rise, head back to your dressing cubicle but don’t put on your street clothes just yet.

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.

Bathing, GloballyTurks and those who visit Turkey aren’t the only ones who love to bathe. Here’s a sample of bath rituals and bathhouses in several MIR destinations:

(click on photo to see larger version)


Travel to Turkey with MIRYou can head to a Turkish hamam almost wherever you go in Turkey, on a handcrafted custom, private journey with MIR. A MIR travel expert will work with you to create a unique itinerary that’s based on your schedule and pace, and focused on your interests – such as a variety of hamams, from local to urban, ancient to modern.

(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

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