Before entering a hamam, I wasn’t completely sure what to expect. While I’d heard it was Turkey’s take on the historical Roman baths and a must-try local experience, I had little understanding of the unique customs and cultural nuances which made a hamam so special. I certainly didn’t expect to be moved psychologically by them. But, when I finally delved into the hazy depths of a Turkish bath, it turned out to be an eye-opening adventure, one that stirred my mind, challenged my body and lifted my soul…
While on the hunt for an authentic hamam experience, my travel buddies and I stumbled across Ali Paşa Hamamı in Tokat. This tightly concealed building looked eerily enigmatic from the street, but once we’d discovered its main entrance (around the back), it presented a glimmer of grandeur and activity. The only issue was, the entire crowd of customers was made up of men. So, my fellow female traveller, Josy, and I left our partners to their own devices and went in search of the women’s quarters. Eventually, we spotted a discreet set of stairs, which lead to a humble side entrance. We were in luck!
Upon entering the dimly lit and somewhat dingy reception area, Josy and I were welcomed by a shy young woman who spoke limited English. It was time for us to put our charades skills to good use. We pretended to scrub our bodies and massage each other’s shoulders to explain the complete hamam package was in order – a bath plus a professional rub-down thanks! Before long, we were whisked away to a private wooden booth in the cool room (frigidarium), so we could strip down and prepare for our steam session.
At this stage, Josy and I had no idea how naked we were supposed to get. We peered through the changing room window and tried to determine what the local veterans were wearing – or not wearing. So it seemed, knickers were preferable along with a sarong (peştemal), which was provided by the hamam. Once our lady parts covered, we shuffled towards the building’s hot room (caldarium).
From the moment Josy and I stepped into the “belly of the beast” – a vacuous marble cavern filled with warm, whirling mist – we were blanketed by a sense of spiritual serenity. This mystical vibe was enhanced by the dome-shaped ceiling, which channelled the fingers of God through its sun-kissed windows. Joined by at least a dozen other women, some accompanied by children, the experience was one of complete immersion in hot, communal air. Having said that, the steam was quite dry to the touch and certainly less stifling than a Russian style sauna.
The perimeter of the hot room was laced with alcoves, which housed ever-flowing water basins with bobbling buckets. Josy and I picked a nook and nestled ourselves either side of the basin like scantily clad goddesses from the Ottoman Empire. We peered timidly at the other bathers, hoping to discover the official protocol without causing them (our ourselves) embarrassment. Exposed breasts were invading our vision at every possible angle and, while I was completely comfortable with being naked in public, it’d been a while since I’d seen other women in the buff.
Photo source: Sultan Hamam
So it seemed, it was time for Josy and me to remove our sarongs, be body brave and douse our limbs in water – lots and lots of water. You see, hamams are distinguished by their emphasis on water over ambient steam. While Turkish baths retain many of the functional features of their Roman predecessors, they embrace Central Asia’s focus on ritual cleansing and respect for water.
Indeed, many of the women at our hamam were kitted out with every bathing and grooming item they could possibly desire, from moisturiser and razors to Moroccan Oil and perfume. Josy and I were much less organised and simply performed the same fill-and-pour action until we were as wrinkly as raisins.
The repetitiveness of it all was actually quite relaxing, and there was something both natural and nourishing about a group of women bathing together. I hadn’t seen the female form like this, bare and real, since high school. The only near-nudity I’d witnessed over the past decade had been in magazines and movies, where women were Photoshopped to perfection.
I suddenly realised how skewed my perception of a “normal” body had become. Surrounded by a proud display of feminine physiques, from the rubenesque and ripped to the battle worn and big-boned, I was hypnotised by how wonderfully unique everyone was. There were dimples, wobbly bits, bingo wings, bountiful bottoms, boobs that could hide small children and breasts smaller than beestings. This was normal – diversity was normal. And it was liberating. Hidden in a hamam, I felt completely free from judgement – especially self-judgement.
Photo source: La Grande Piscine À Brusa, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1885
After half-an-hour in the hot room, Josy and I were kidnapped from our moment of reflection and guided into the hamam’s warm chamber (tepidarium). Its perimeter was peppered with cloudy figures all facing towards the two massage beds in the middle of the room. After a quick, “See you on the other side,” to Josy, I claimed one of the beds and waited for my masseuse to arrive. She turned out to be a Turkish Mamma with a hearty bosom and hands stronger than a pastry chef. It was time for her to knead me into a new woman.
Well, almost. First, my body had to survive an intense exfoliating session. My Mamma Masseuse used a particularly rough mitt (kese) – a piece of sandpaper would have been more merciful. Within minutes, my skin had become multiple shades lighter; my summer tan was no more. What I thought were the gritty remnants of an exfoliating scrub turned out to be beads of my flesh. Before I could get grossed out by the idea, a torrent of water splashed down on me like a scene from Flash Dance. Now it was time for an oil massage.
While I was rubbed, turned, pulled and prodded, I heard giggles chiming in the background. I often struggled to understand my masseuse’s instructions and our awkward naked “dance” seemed to entertain the local ladies. I finally caught my own case of the giggles when the masseuse pulled me into her chest so she could massage my back. I felt like my face was being swallowed by a soft pillow – it reminded me of the bear hugs I enjoyed with my Great Aunty Betty and it was curiously comforting. Once the brilliant assault was over, it was time for a final bath.
Mamma Masseuse led me to a private bathing area and drenched me in water until my vision was blurred. She lathered my hair in enough shampoo for a dozen women and proceeded to scrub every square millimetre of my scalp with her relentless hands. I was transported back to my toddler years, when my mum used to bathe me in the laundry sink – so much love, laughter and bubbly fun. Coming back to earth as a 28-year-old grown woman, I found my present situation utterly hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing (and choking on suds) until I was hosed down, tucked back into a sarong and sent on my merry way.
Photo source: The Bath, Jean Léon Gérôme
As I walked into the cool room and wandered back to my dressing room, the crisp air brought my foggy brain back to life. I carefully dodged the other women, who were ready to call it a day, and suddenly realised I’d had the rare opportunity to see what the local ladies really wore under their traditional garments. While many of them were completely covered on the street, showing little more than their hands and eyes, they were almost completely exposed in the carefree confines of the hamam. I was surprised by how sensual and stunning their lingerie was. Hmmmm….perhaps I needed to swap my travel-worn granny panties for a satin negligee too.
While Josie and I were encouraged to chill out in the recovery area for a while, we were eager to meet our men and swap stories. Handing over 30 Turkish lira each (approx. $15 AUD) plus a customary tip on our way out, we stepped back into the hustle ‘n’ bustle feeling absolutely fabulous. Ben and John had been waiting for a while and, based on their tales of back-cracking and hurried hot room time, they’d obviously drawn the short straw. But, while the boys were left feeling a little unsatisfied, I was convinced the hamam experience was an absolute highlight of my time in Turkey.