I’ve read about Turkish hamams in the past, and seen a couple of paintings of them in museums. The idea of being massaged, bathed and scrubbed-down by someone who does it as their profession, in a place designed just for that purpose, seemed so completely foreign that I promised myself I’d visit one if I ever had the opportunity.
Our trip to Istanbul (more on that later) gave us the chance to check it out. I chose the Galatasaray Hamam, which is 450 years old and in quiet neighborhood.
The attendants didn’t speak English, except for two words. But they did a great job helping us through the experience.
We were shown to our individual rooms upstairs, where we changed out of our clothes and took the thin towels just big enough to cover the important parts. Then down to the reception area again where we were led into the hamam.
The hamam was a large room with a big platform in the middle. With the exception of the ceiling, the room was made entirely of marble, including the platform and washing basins. The temperature in the room was about 100F (38C) degrees. The heat came from the platform and the floor.
The ceiling was a huge dome with small round windows, letting in natural light. There were towels and vinyl pillows set on the platform, and we were asked to lie down. They would leave us there for 20 minutes to warm up and sweat.
All we heard was the sound of condensation dripping from the walls. At one point, the afternoon call to prayer came from the local mosque, and the sounds drifted inside through the heat.
Then came the attendants. Men who have worked in this hamam for years, wearing only towels. They carried large metal bowls and bars of soap.
They filled the bowls with warm water, dumped the water on us, lathered up their hands, and delivered a fast, rough massage. Did I say the massage was rough? I tried to keep quiet and take it in stride, but at one point I had to grunt from the pressure.
Aha! exclaimed my attendant, a large Turk, as he continued the beating. He then spoke the two English words he knew.
When the massages were done we were motioned to get up and sit down next to the marble basins. We got doused with more warm water, and were left alone for a couple of minutes while the attendants prepared for Round Two.
Another dousing. Then, using things that resembled oversized heads of floor mops, the attendants washed us all over. They put their mop things into soapy water in the basins and then rubbed them all over us, head to toes.
Then came the coarse hand mitt. The exfoliation was so thorough that when my attendant was done I was, quite literally, squeaky clean.
They led us to a shower of cool water, then wrapped us in three towels: lower body, middle, and head. We looked like Lawrence of Arabia and Ali Baba. The only things missing were a harem and a couple of camels.
We were led out into the seating area, which was at a normal temperature, and had some water. After resting and cooling off, we got dressed.
This was definitely not the American day spa experience. I’ll do it again if I ever get to return to Istanbul.