Would you brave the traditional Turkish Bath? This is what a hammam is really like
Dating back centuries, the Turkish hammam is as much a social outlet as it is a cleansing, cathartic ritual. This was my experience
After all these years living in my own body, I am still the kind of person who gets embarrassed in the gym locker room. My post-shower dressing routine (gripping the towel for dear life while attempting to put my underwear on one handed) still resembles that of my painfully self-aware 10-year-old self. So, to lay practically naked in a room full of other women whom I’d known for approximately four days was about as far outside my comfort zone as I could get.
Not to mention, the fact that we were all being individually scrubbed down from scalp to soles by non-English speaking natir (attendants).
A Turkish hammam is an integral to the nation’s collective wellness culture as the Banya is to Russians, hot springs to those in Iceland and acupuncture to the Chinese. When it comes to outlining the origin of the tradition, historians are unclear.
However, the Ottoman Turks essentially “borrowed” from the ancient Roman bath concept and adapted it to suit their own tastes. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, thought that those who visited the heat of the hammam might conceive children easier.
Keen to spread the faith, Muhammad advocated for everyone to use the baths, thus making the ritual a staple activity for many Turkish people.
Hammam in Arabic means “spreader of warmth” – and reader, I did get warm. The experience starts with a sweltering sauna at 65 degrees celsius. (Poultry cooks at 75, as one of our group remarked.) When you arrive to the hammam, you are given a peshtemal, also known as a Turkish towel, which is really more of a tasseled blanket than a traditional terry cloth towel.
After 10 minutes in the sauna, whereby even our tongues were starting to sweat, we then went to the steam room, just in case we had any moisture left in us to perspire.
Right about here, there was a bit of a kerfuffle as we had no idea what to do next. We entered into the hammam itself, the female natir who would be attending to each of us motioned to lie on the large marble stone platform that took up most of the room. Turkish towels: gone.
Lying on the heated marble stone (gobek tasi) in this majestic room with its high ceilings was, in itself, relaxation enough. Using a black soap and a loofah-type tool, the attendant scrubbed my skin to within an inch of its life, taking off layers of skin, dirt and stress in the process.
Then came a welcome surprise: an intense massage, that soothed my tightly wound-up spine still suffering the long haul flight from New York to Istanbul days previously.
Exfoliated and kneaded, lying on the gobek tasi in just a pair of bikini bottoms (most women go without, but, you know… baby steps), I was trying to peak around to suss what was to happen next. All the women in our group were at various stages of the process; one was sitting with her eyes closed having her hair washed by her attendant, in a scene that looked almost biblical.
If I thought the massage was relaxing, it pales in comparison to what followed. The attendant seemed to fill a large cloth bag with warm, soapy bubbles. With delicate motions, the bubbles cascaded over me for what seemed like an eternity while I lay on the hot stone. Bubbles can, surprisingly, feel quite heavy when there are that many on top of you. Yet in a good way, like being under a soothing, weighted blanket. It felt like melting into liquid velvet; or sinking into a cloud.
The attendant washed my hair (oh, how many times I’ve wished someone would do this for me when I was hungover) and gestured for me to remove my now-soaked bikini bottoms while she wrapped me in a large bath towel. I was led into the adjoining salt room, where the other women from the group were sitting in turquoise deck chairs sipping tea. One by one, the attendants came back and painted our faces with a clay mask as we remained in the room, chatting and laughing about the experience.
I’ll admit that I’ve spent an alarming amount of money over the years on facials and products that promise the earth, moon and stars – but my skin has never, ever looked as healthy and glowing as it did after after an hour in this Turkish Bath, and all for the equivalent of €35.
In the salt room, our guide Aynur Gok of Intrepid Travel, who is one of few female tour guides working in Turkey, explained the significance of the hammam ritual for women. For centuries, women would (and still do, in some conservative parts of eastern Turkey) flock to their town’s hammam to check out the younger, single girls in a bid to find suitable wives for their sons. If a match was deemed imminent, the girls would bring their own mothers to the hammam to meet and converse with their potential mother-in-law.
The young woman would also have to prove herself to the man’s mother by completing a series of tests, such as preparing traditional Turkish coffee or local cuisine. If the marriage was to go ahead, then the ‘bridal hammam’ would be arranged. The bride’s friends and relatives would come to the hammam and celebrate with music, food and dancing. The bride would be washed three times in the middle, to purify her before the nuptials.
Many have long nicknamed the hammam ‘the silent doctor’, believing that the heat cures everything that ails you. While at first the hammam only permitted men, women were eventually allowed to visit after an illness or having given birth. The hammam, at last, gave isolated and marginalised women an outlet to socialise. In fact, if a husband denied his wife her weekly cathartic visit to the hammam, it served as grounds for divorce.
Imagine, if your significant other wouldn’t let you head off to Monart for a few days….
After my full rub-a-dub-dub in the hammam, I went back to my hotel room for a blissed-out nap. I text my boyfriend to fill him in on the once in a lifetime experience, gushing about how impressed I was and how I wished I could have a hammam to retreat to when the stress of living in New York gets too much.
His puzzled response: “Who is hammam?”
Freya Drohan traveled to Turkey with Intrepid Travel, on a preview of their upcoming Women’s Expedition; a 12-day excursion that gives tourists an insight into what life is like for the modern Turkish woman. Intrepid Travel’s Women’s Expedition tour aims to encourage female empowerment and showcase the customs and traditions of local women by giving tourists access to intimate, unique moments such as workshops, one-on-one meetings, authentic experiences and home-cooked meals.