Tales from a Traditional Turkish Bath in Istanbul, Turkey

By: Vincent Ventura

From teachers to tour guides, everyone told me to go to Istanbul – they told me it was the place to travel to. So diligently I heeded their advice, and booked a flight there after my semester studying abroad.

The city of Istanbul is a clash of culture, split between the European and Asian continents. Here, the traditions of the east meet the conventions of the west. The result is an expansive metropolis with glittering mosques and unbelievable food. Population: 11 million.

The most memorable aspect of my trip to Istanbul was a visit to a traditional hamam or Turkish bath. Like a sauna, Turkish baths use steam heat, but also utilize running water and attendants to wash guests. Apparently it felt like a human carwash and after, I would feel cleaner than I ever did in my life. Cool!

After a visit to the Grand Bazaar we approached the Cağaloğlu Hamam and I started to feel nervous for some reason. Suddenly, I felt like I was in sixth grade again finding out that I had to change for gym class again. For the first time, I think I was truly registering what I was about to do. Basically, I was volunteering to have my out-of-shape body power-washed by some, strange Turkish man. This didn’t seem that weird until we were selecting our treatments. Was it truly worth it? I had never been to a spa before, and I felt kind of intimidated.

At that precise moment, I remembered how long it was since I had a nice, hot shower. Traveling nonstop for several days can leave you very dirty and exhausted, you know? So I followed my gut, and signed up for an exfoliation treatment. Separated by gender, I said goodbye to my friend Holly, and was guided to a personal changing room and I disrobed. I began to question my decision when I stepped out in my towel loincloth and wooden sandals. I felt like Tarzan only heavier, confused and in the middle of Istanbul. I sucked in my stomach a little bit more as I walked into the main room.

Historically, Turkish baths or hamams were public baths that served two purposes: 1) To get clean both for hygienic and religious regions and 2) to provide a place to socialize (just like the Roman baths that historically preceded them). The Cağaloğlu Hamam was a historic hamam and has been in continuous operation since 1741, serving royalty, politicians, and Cameron Diaz. A large Turkish man points to a small alcove, where I sat and waited for my towel-clad attendant. There, I marveled in the gorgeous Ottoman architecture, glistening in the steam heat. Nothing too strange happened…yet.

Fifteen minutes later, my attendant arrived and led me to an alcove in the main room, next to a fountain. The central part of the hamam featured an impressive dome, traces of light filtering through the tiny windows. I sat down on the marble ground, covered in sweat and the attendant began to flick water all over my body. He then took a special, textured cloth and began to scrub me down. By scrub down, I mean intensely and forcibly cleaning me, head to toe, everywhere my towel wasn’t covering. Not going to lie, I’m pretty sure my mouth was open for the duration of it. The attendant pointed to a residue forming around his cloth, and then gestured towards me. “Your skin” he made out in broken-English. I was even more dumbfounded.

He finished the treatment by covering me in suds and scrubbing me down again, this time with something that looked like a mop. He moved me around to scrub my head, back and legs, and splashed the soap off with delightfully hot water from the fountain. As someone who probably takes too much time in the shower, I was in absolute bliss. He bowed and left me, and I sat there for a little while longer in the steam heat, marveling over where I was, and what I was doing. When I decided to leave the main room, I was wrapped tightly in new, plush towels and guided back to my changing room. I sat outside, and ordered a tea.

Even though I was hesitant at first, I’m really happy I did the hamam – it was the perfect break from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. Although some people may say that hamams are touristy, they are part of a timeless tradition that is still appreciated by the locals of Istanbul. In fact, it is a tradition for bridal parties to indulge in treatments at hamams before weddings. If you have the opportunity, hamams are the ultimate way to unwind while exploring Turkish culture.

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