I had heard horror stories of both humiliation and violation so I was fully prepared for the possibility of a horrendous experience when I decided to go to a hamamı – a traditional Turkish bath. For centuries people have gone to cleanse and socialise, you sweat out your toxins and are then scrubbed down by someone, while naked.
I'm the kind of person that wears shorts with bathers so you can understand my apprehension. The idea of having to all but strip naked and be hit with sponges by a semi-naked Turkish lady was something that didn't fall on the bucket list, but rather the life experience list, things I should suck it up and do to enrich my life and my travel experience (see snorkelling, horse riding) but then again there’s nothing like a healthy dose of public humiliation to really top off a holiday. I was willing to do something touristy, something traditional and something that, if nothing else, would give me a good story.
Firstly I decided that this was not the sort of thing to do on the cheap, no back alleys, no special prices, obviously you want an authentic Turkish experience but I also don’t want to be physically abused with a sponge or massaged by a creepy man. Çemberlitas is the oldest hamamı in Istanbul. Right by the Grand Bazaar in the heart of Istanbul’s tourist district, the baths were built in 1584 for the wife of Sultan Selim II.
I walked in with my head held high, because I was doing this, no chickening out, into an open room where a few women were sitting around chatting. They thrust into my hands a peştamal – a cotton hamamı towel slightly bigger than a tea towel but certainly smaller than a bath towel, a scrubbing mitt and a little bag containing a pair of black undies then motioned for me to go upstairs, change and put my things in the locker.
Thankfully, I went reasonably early and I was alone. I got changed into my undies, they were surprisingly comfy. I then tried to wrap the peştamal around me to cover my dignity as much as possible, and then shuffled down stairs in someone else’s plastic flip flops that were about three sizes too small.
They motion me through the wooden door, it amazing how you can get by with no words spoken, into the hamamı.
And it was beautiful, and beautifully deserted. The room was muggy, built round and made of marble with a huge domed roof with circular and star-shaped holes cut into the ceiling letting in streams of light.
The light beamed down onto a massive hexagonal marble slab sitting in the centre. There were marble basins and taps every few meters around the edge and little private rooms with more basins and taps.
The lady grunted and motioned for me to lay down on the peştamal (towel) that had been quickly whipped from me seconds before, exposing me to my new Turkish friend and whipping away what little dignity I had with it.
“Where you from?” she asks to break the ice.
“Australia”, I say as I lay down. Semi-naked. On my back. On a marble slab with a middle-aged Turkish lady in undies and flip flops looking over me.
Really, feeling like, and no doubt resembling, a swine on a sacrificial alter.
I laid on the warm marble and sweat out my toxins. It smelled a bit like people had laid on the warm marble and sweat out their toxins for the past 500 years. The room was beautiful and I laid there trying to relax, but also conscious that I was topless and lying flat on marble and squishing all my fat. Regardless of comfort, I basted myself on both sides like a rotisserie chicken.
After 15 minutes or so my lady returned and poked me to lie down on my back. It was time for my scrub. She poured warm water on me from the metal bowl filled from the basin. Then I got a full body scrub down with a peeling glove, which might just be the best piece of equipment ever. It is literally brown with muck at the end, and I didn't think I was that dirty.
“Not too clean” I thought, “I want to get rid of the street scum but don’t scrub off my summer glow”.
I flipped a few times and got a good scrubbing. It’s hard to know whether to make eye contact or just stare blankly at the ceiling, I did the latter.
Keep in mind, you are wearing only undies.
Then it was time for suds. She dunked a makeshift pillowcase in a bowl of soapy, citronella smelling suds and pushed the air through making all the bubbles land all over me.
There were bubbles everywhere, on my body ready for scrubbing, but also in my hair, up my nose and in my eyes. So many bubbles I started sliding off the marble to which she would give me a nudge back towards the centre like a game of curling. She scrubbed me all over with soapy suds and gave me a massage which was an added bonus, re-sudding the bubbles from the pillow case several times. The excessive amount of bubbles help disguise the fact that someone’s hands are rubbing all over your body. Exfoliating, cleansing and massaging.
Yes, it sounds like some sick person’s odd fantasy but I can assure you there nothing sexy about an overweight Turkish women scrubbing down an embarrassed, overweight western woman. It’s all in a day’s work for these hamamı ladies, you are silly to be embarrassed. They don’t care, most of them are topless as well.
Soon the bubbles were in my eyes and I was glad it came time to de-bubble, with a series of bowls of water thrown over me, each in decreasing temperature. Each feeling like someone throwing a bowl of water at you, often right in the face. She then led me over to one of the marble wall taps which are beautiful and look like where a Turkish princess bathed. It’s also where the nicely towel-clad women are in the postcards, not sweating just looking pretty, touching their newly smooth skin, not evident is their butt hanging out the back of their too-small peştamal or them being awkwardly scrubbed down by a middle aged Turkish woman.
She sat me down by a basin, I felt a bit like Jasmine from Aladdin momentarily, then remembered I was in a room, semi-naked in public, and more water was dumped over me to wash off all the soap. Noticing by this stage my hair was in a bit of trouble, and very un-Turkish princess-ish, she nicked out and came back with some shampoo and rubbed it in and again, threw a bowl of water over my head.
This place clearly is not in a drought.
“It’s over” she said as she dropped the now soaking wet peştamal to the floor with a thud. She motioned to the next room where there was a Jacuzzi of sorts, a stone bath with water coming from the walls. She left via the dry room to collect her bra, which they hang on the towel hooks, and pull on her Adidas shirt before returning to the foyer to chat with others about the day’s soaps.
I plunged, then lay back on the marble, then tipped some more bowls of water over myself, rinse and repeat, I wasn't sure what to do but I wanted to spend some quality time in there and ensure I was as clean as possible. Eventually I was pouring cold water on myself because it was getting quite warm; you would wonder what the appeal is in a hot country.
After wandering about for another 30 minutes other people started coming in. It was amusing to see people walking in with all their modesty, nervously clinging to their peştamal and looking around for someone to tell them what to do.
“Ah I was you only 45 minutes ago, now look at me, walking around like I own the place, filling up my own bowl at the taps”, I think.
I eventually decided I had poured enough hot water on myself for one day, I soaked up the beautiful room once more then found a peştamal on the floor by the door as mine had disappeared and headed into a drying room. The towels were fresh and seemed to moisturise your skin, and smelled like coconut tonsillitis medicine. They were neatly piled up in the arches of the marble walls, the heat from the main room creating a towel warmer.
I jumped in the shower and used some more shampoo because that lady was severely underestimating me if she thought a bit of 2-in-1 was going to do the trick. I dried off slowly, this cost 70 lira I was going to milk it. I’ll towel off my ears and toes for that price.
Eventually I had to accept I was done and walked back into the foyer and up to my locker. I ran someone else’s comb through my hair and gave it a quick dry, knowing full well the humidity of outside was going to ruin any major hair works instantly. I was quite happy in my towel and smooth skin I didn't really fancy going back outside and getting all dirty again.
Maybe I could become a hamamı lady and stay in there all day.
I got dressed and left, wondering if I was radiating as I walked down the street. I was actually red faced and dehydrated.
It was a rather fantastic experience. I had gone in there with low expectations, expecting a good story if nothing else, but I had a great Turkish hamamı experience - I got silky smooth skin, I was squeaky clean for my flight that night to Melbourne via Dubai and Kuala Lumpur and with all that massaging I probably got a free breast examination so it’s a win win.
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