Lather Up! Paying A Visit to the Hamam (Istanbul)
Come now, you knew this post was coming. I mean a trip to the home of the Turkish bath would not be complete without indulging in an evening of scrubbing, steaming, soaking and sudsing at the hands of some women old enough to be my grandmother.
Hamams are a big deal in Turkey, as they are across the majority of the Middle East and North Africa. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to who grew up in the region has a culture, a ritual, of frequenting their local hamam at least twice a month, if not every week. This is because bath houses are not only places of rest, relaxation and grooming, but they’re also where one can catch up on gossip.
I mean where better to dish the dirt?
Istanbul was grey and dismal for almost the whole time I was there, which made it perfect sauna and scrub weather. By mid-week I was frazzled with work so after long day of meetings I joined a couple of friends and we slipped into a nearby hamam. As expected, the women’s and men’s quarters were separate and we had to go outside and around the corner to access the entrance for females. Go figure.
Walking through the separate entrance we were met by a heavyset woman in her underwear who ushered us into small separate cubicles where we left our belongings and emerged in towels and pairs of rather…interesting…wooden sandals. Tottering along we moved through the shower (“warm room”) area into the hot room, which is where modesty is checked at the door. Entering into a large cavernous enclave with Roman inspired decor, we tread on a warm rose marble floor underfoot. Stone fountains with elaborate basins were fixed around the perimeter of the room while a domed ceiling cradled small stained glass windows overhead. In the centre of the room a large square slab of marble (tummy stone) was fixed firmly in place and was big enough to accomodate six or seven reclining adults. Delightfully warm, it was where I spent the majority of my time.
Sweating. Being preened. Getting clean.
The women running the hamam, responsible for soaping up and scrubbing down clients, are wizened old characters who have the strength of a herd of oxen. For real. They chatter away to each other as they make big soap bubbles with their towels and scrub their adult clients like five year old kids. The woman who was giving me a good wash was probably in her early 60s and she wielded her loofah with the utmost dexterity. As I lay on the tummy stone she removed the top two layers of my skin and scrubbed enough grime, dirt and dead cells from my gangly frame that I was slightly repulsed when I finally looked down to take stock of the situation. Once the exfoliation was complete, she proceeded to lather up my hair and give me a washing that could put my hairdresser out of a job. Bowl after bowl of water rained down over my head and sent tainted suds, dead skin, and months worth of pollutants spinning down the drain.
I don’t know how she did it, but she washed Cairo right out of my hair.
In all, I spent about an hour and a half in the hamam and emerged into the cool Istanbul evening invigorated and ravenous. While it’s not the cheapest activity (115 TRY or 65 USD including tip), my trip to the hamam was one of the more worthwhile and enjoyable things I did while in Istanbul. It was physically refreshing and mentally stimulating, and worth every single penny.
Shedding old skin never felt so good.