Going to a hamam is one of those experiences that I felt I had to do in Turkey. A bucket list item, if you will. However, I admit I went into this experience pretty blind as to what to expect. I’ve grown up around Japanese hot springs, so being around nudity doesn’t really bother me. My Egyptian-American former stepmother really recommended going. Plus, I figured it couldn’t be any worse than one unforgettable super harsh massage I’d had about four years ago in Indonesia…
It took some convincing to get Meagan to go, but backbones bolstered with the addition of a new British friend, we found ourselves at sunset at Elis Hamam, the only hamam in Cappadocia.
What is a Turkish bath?
Hamams, also known as Turkish baths, are public bathing houses dating back from the Ottoman times. Literally meaning bath in Arabic, Hamams can be found all over Turkey and Morocco. Some hamams in Istanbul have been in operation since the 1500s! They’re generally modeled after Roman bathhouses, with domed ceilings along with marble columns and slabs.
I read that after the Turkish conquest of Alexandria in 641 AD, the Hellenistic Roman baths were brought back and incorporated into the local culture. Many hamams initially started as places for Muslim men to wash before prayer, some attached directly to a nearby mosque. However, as the centuries passed, hamams become a more central place for socializing and relaxation rather than places of piety. In Hamams, urban and rural class divides dissipated with the steam, allowing locals to intermix where they might not otherwise have a chance to.
Time for a bath!
After talking with the man at the front desk, who assured us prices there at Elis Hamam were by far cheaper than those we’d ever find in Istanbul, we chose a packaged deal with an additional stress-relieving massage. All for under thirty bucks!
We followed a grand staircase down to the separate women’s section and into a locker room. An attendant gave us towels to cover ourselves with and a pair of flip flops. We were told to undress and given a stretchy wrist band to hold our locker key and massage token. Unsure if we should go topless or not, Meagan and I decided to go for it, but keep our bottoms on – which proved to be the right choice later on.
Nearly naked and clutching the towels around our waist, we were led into a waiting room with comfortable lounge chairs. A woman with an assortment of clay pots on a tray came over right away and painted a mud mask onto our faces. We were then led into a wooden sauna room to sweat and let our masks dry out for fifteen minutes. Hanging out in the sauna was rather pleasant. It wasn’t too hot, but enough to cause a light sheen to appear on our skin. An older Korean woman followed us into the sauna, but didn’t speak any English.
Exiting the sauna, we expected someone to meet us, but all we saw was one naked lady enter the raised pool next to six showers separated by curtains. Through another door way was a woman being scrubbed down on a marble slab. We rinsed our faces in the showers with some kind of coconut shampoo the wall dispensers had. We then proceeded to enter the next room. By this time, we were a bit confused, as there were no signs or indications about what were supposed to do. We awkwardly stood around and as the lone woman who was scrubbed rinsed herself off at one of the many sinks circling the walls of the room. She didn’t speak English, either, but gestured for us to rinse ourselves at the sinks nearby with plastic bowls. In the middle of this room was a marble slab that was about half my height – I learned later on that this was called a tummy stone or göbek taşı.
After maybe ten minutes of awkwardly standing and walking around, a group of about five rather buff-looking matrons suddenly showed. One rather large woman directed me to lie on the stone slab stomach down as she pulled off my towel and left to fetch her supplies. Glancing up, I saw that everyone else was lying on the same slab in a circle formation. I noticed the old Korean woman we saw in the sauna earlier was situated above me. She had decided at that moment to remove both her towel and underwear, and I made a mental note not to look up as her bush was on full display. Looking elsewhere while waiting on the slab, I saw our British friend wasn’t allowed to keep her bra on. I could barely see Meagan on the far side of my feet.
Prior to the end of the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century, young boys called tellak, were used as masseurs. They were taken from the ranks of non-Muslim subjects of the Ottomans, namely the Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Albanians and Bulgarians. I’m glad all the masseurs now are same-sex in the hamams. I especially loved how the women who worked here were of all shapes and sizes. It felt wonderfully inclusive, and what could have potentially been an awkward and embarrassing experience felt celebratory. It was nice to be able to relax without worrying about societal concerns about beauty or whatever about my own body as I was being oiled and massaged by a thick woman in a black sports bra and shorts that could probably hold her own in a fight.
The BEST feeling was when my attendant shook out a bag of soapy bubbles onto my back and coated my entire body in a wave of bubbles. It’s indescribable how happy and comfortable that feeling was. The suds were a light airy blanket of warm bubbles that made me feel safe and sleepy.
After getting exfoliated and washed clean with hot water, we were instructed to then hop into the pool. Plunging in was a shock to the system – the pool was COLD. We got used to it after a while, albeit it was admittedly strange without a top.
Following the pool and another rinse in the showers, we were given new fluffier towels and some of the classic apple tea. Another masseuse led us to a different room with massage tables and mystical music playing. She told us to relax and switched off the lights as we were massaged one by one. We rested for probably longer than we needed to after this – no one was sure whether we were actually done or not. It kind of felt like touch and go at this place as no one really told us what to do/where to go. We changed and left a decent tip to the staff before heading out.
Overall, going to bathe in a hamam was a better experience than I expected! Being scrubbed down wasn’t painful at all, as I half expected them to try to take a layer of skin off from some of the reviews our British friend said she had read.
Also, I felt pretty great afterwards! My skin was super soft and my achy muscles felt so much more flexible. I would highly recommend giving a Turkish bath a try!
Cover photo credit: bootsnall.com