There is no graceful way to roll over on a slab of marble slippery with soap and water. Try it, you’ll quickly find out that you have to leave all your pretensions and inhibitions at the door. This, for me, was the lesson of the Turkish Hammam (Turkish bathhouse).
It was my first visit to Turkey, to Istanbul. I had been to a hammam before, and places claiming to be hammams, but this was the real deal. Visiting a building where people have been bathing for over 500 years.
It seemed to me that two of the hammams stand out as the real deal: the Cemberlitas, built in 1584, and the Cagaloglu (1741). Both were close to my hotel in Sultanhamet, Istanbul’s main historical district. Both were described and recommended in my guidebook. I decided to try the Cemberlitas, largely because it is near the Grand Bazaar and I had seen the entrance to it from the tram earlier that day – at least I knew I could find it.
Hammam Lesson 1. Not for relaxing
Istanbul is a city of 20 million people. And it is fantastic but after only a couple of days I understood why people needed to get away to a place of relaxation. But that was my first mistake: hammams are not about relaxation. Do not expect a pampering, princess experience like in a Western spa. Hammams are about scrubbing, and gossiping. The experience is vigorous, noisy, crowded. And quite confusing.
I ventured to Cemberlitas on my birthday, suffering a head cold. Both conditions which make me a little fragile. On top of that I was assured by the guidebooks that all would be clear and English widely spoken. Well, yes and no.
The receptionist spoke good English. I went for the full package – soap scrub, oil massage, use of the hammam – and was given a scrub mitten and little plastic tokens. These gave me confidence. I could hand them over and people would know what I wanted. A good theory.
Hammam Lesson 2. Women are clearly inferior
My first disappointment is that women are clearly inferior to men. The website promised little changing cabanas but the reality for women is a narrow corridor with lockers and very little room to change. The girl taking care of this area spoke good English but was not particularly forthcoming with information. And in my weakened, blocked-nose state I probably didn’t really ask the right questions. So, operating on assumption, I changed into the cotton wrap provided and proceeded down the corridor as instructed.
I reached a marble room, with two benches. There were a couple of toilets off this room and several women sitting around who stared at me. I smiled. No response. I showed my plastic tokens and one of them waved me towards a door. I smiled thanks and went through the door. Now I was in the hammam itself.
A beautiful room, all marble with a domed ceiling with stars cut out. This was the historical epicentre; women have been bathing here for centuries. In the middle was the heated marble slab where women were being soaped and scrubbed by the attendants. Around the outside of the room were little alcoves with marble basins, battered silver bowls and running taps. The sheer amount of water washing around was decadent enough to an Australian, coming from the land of severe drought.
A few people stared as I hovered near the door but no-one came forward to help me. I was glad I knew enough to head for a basin and start washing myself with the scrubbing mitten. But I made one big mistake. Clearly the basin I chose was used by one of the hammam attendants and as soon as I put my plastic tokens down she came and chased me away, gesturing and shaking her head. I fled to the other side. She calmed down.
Hammam Lesson 3. No nude bathing
Feeling a little fragile, I washed myself down, then went to lie on the hot marble slab and relax. I took my little tokens and figured that someone would notice and come to look after me in turn.
I glanced around to see what the etiquette was for lying on my cloth or not, and then I noticed: everyone except me was wearing bikini bottoms. Then I saw the sign: No Nude Bathing. I had made a huge faux pas. I hadn’t even brought a bikini with me – I assumed that women-only bathing would be a nude experience. My spirits plunged, my coping skills were as low as my immune system.
After toying with rushing back to my locker for my underpants, I forged on, lay my cotton wrap on the slab then lay on it. And, man, was I glad because a short time later another brazen fool without bikini bottoms came in, scrubbed off then dared to sit on the marble bare-bottomed. Oh, the raucous outrage she inspired! I felt a little better.
But I have to say I wasn’t particularly relaxed. I was increasingly anxious about my soap scrub and oil massage. Should I have told someone? Was I just meant to wait? So… I got up and went over to a lady I could see was an attendant and showed her my tokens. She nodded and waved at the slab. Obviously I was meant to lie down and wait. I did… but so much for the guidebooks assurances about good English spoken. I thought about shedding a little tear – as you do when you feel physically unwell, culturally confused, inappropriately naked, and it’s your birthday just to add aging into the mix.
Finally a lady came over, took my tokens and started throwing water on me, wrap and all. Yay, I thought. Here we go. I will be clean and relaxed and this stupid cold will be steamed out of me. Then another lady came to the door and yelled and my lady got up and left. What?! NO!
Hammam Lesson 4. No husband? No wax.
I lay there a bit longer, then finally she came back. And she was really nice. A big smile and the inevitable question about where I was from. ‘Oh, Australia, so far away.’ Then it was down to business. And my realisation that, at the hammam, you are quickly snapped out of any princess pretensions and busted down to being a piece of meat.
I was scrubbed. I was inelegant as I turned over on the slippery slab. I had water thrown over me. I was in danger of drowning in bubbles. And, boy, was I happy! Until she looked me over critically, pointed and said: ‘You want wax?’ I shook my head. ‘For your husband!’ I shook my head again. ‘You have no husband?’ I shook my head. She looked horrified. Was rendered speechless. Being made to feel a misfit did not help sustain my happiness levels.
When she finished, she helped me up and sent me out to the other room. When I reached for my sodden wrap, she shook her head and took it from me. In my naked shame I exited the hammam and went back to the cooler anteroom I came in through. Everyone ignored me. I saw a pile of towels and leapt, wrapped myself up, then sat on a bench to wait for my oil massage. I could only hope someone knew what was going on; I didn’t.
On the other bench was a lady who had succumbed to the waxing offer. Wrap tossed aside, bikini off, legs unceremoniously spread, facing into the locker room, her expression was a mixture of mortification and agony. I was glad I had been strong enough to continue shaking my head.
Some very confused Japanese girls came in and stood around for a moment. I pointed them into the hammam. If I was now a font of knowledge we were all in trouble.
Finally, a lady came and took me in for my oil massage. On a massage table in a room of four, she oiled and massaged. It was nice but gentle. And then I was sent back into the anteroom. Unsure whether I was meant to re-enter the hammam and seeing no place to relax and chill I headed back for locker, got dressed and went out to reception to meet my co-traveller, Steve, who had done the same package as me. Steve had hot towels wrapped around him, changing cabanas and little beds to relax on while he was served juice.
Tears threatened to well again: being a woman was clearly being a lower form of life, especially an unmarried one!
Hammam Lesson 5. It’s always better the second time
I was a little scarred and saddened by my hamman experience and Steve, bless him, insisted on visiting the Cagaloglu hammam a few days later. Similar in many ways: the domed room, the cotton wrap, the confusing waiting around; this was also a much, much better experience.
The women’s changing area was almost identical to the men’s – but without the fountain! We had private, locking changing cabanas, and little beds, and little wooden shoes (which were quite a challenge to walk on across wet marble and caused many a giggle from the attendants). There were no plastic tokens but the staff seemed to know what I was having. And they were clearer in waving me to places to wait. On entering the beautiful, grey marble, domed hamman, a woman waved me to a basin, turned on the taps for me and said: ‘Water, water’. So, I splashed myself over and over and over while I watched others get scrubbed and massaged on the slab.
Thankfully there was no suggestion of waxing but she led me back to the basin, pushed me to sitting naked (except for my bikini bottoms!) on the marble at her feet and proceeded to wash my hair. Usually I would say no because my hair is long and tends to throw scary red henna water which scares people (although probably not in Turkey) but I had no chance and I was so glad. Reduced to feeling about four years old as she forced a comb through my hair, it was great. Truly surrendering to someone else’s control and feeling absolutely looked after.
I had a quick relax on the hot slab again afterwards, then went to my little room to chill out (and dry my hair). Sadly, this was all too quick because they were about to close. I’m therefore not sure if they would have served me juice as they did Steve in the men’s area. But while I waited for him, the man in reception (which is also the men’s cabana area!) brought me pomegranate juice. While the other men stared and stared… which I was getting used to after a few days in Istanbul but still not particularly liking.
So, after all that, I would definitely recommend visiting a Hamman when in Turkey. Your skin will never feel so amazing! But I would say go to the Cagaloglu. It is friendly, the facilities are better and the price is standard, the location is central, and it is historically significant. After all, it appeared in an Indiana Jones movie.
Read more: The Insider’s Guide to Istanbul