The Turkish Hammam Experience

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After checking out the grounds of our resort on the morning after we arrived, the next order of business was making appointments for Jeff and me to visit the hammam (Turkish bath house) on site. I have long wanted to do this, and chose the traditional treatment, which was, funny enough, a thorough scrubbing and soaping. But there was much more to it than being bathed by a stranger!

Hammam– a beautiful place for a nap? (Source)

First, I was given a Turkish towel called a pestemal, and was told to wear that and a two-piece bathing suit. With that on, I went to a dry sauna for 15- 20 minutes. There, I met an older Turkish woman that I enjoyed chatting with about Turkish baths. She talked nostalgically about when she was younger, and she used to go the hammam twice a week. “Then,” she lamented, “I became too busy with work, and didn’t make time to go. I started the habit of daily showering, and I have never felt quite so clean and healthy since.”

I wore a pestemal just like this one. (Source)

Soon, a tiny little Balinese lady in a sarong and bikini top came to collect me. She brought me into the main hammam room, which was all marble and tile. It was beautiful! There were several marble slab tables in there, and each had a little alcove with a water spigot, a marble basin to catch the water, and a silver dish called a tas to be used as a dipper. She spread my towel over a marble table, and told me to lay down on it. Then, she started splashing me with water, in varying temperatures. Once I was soaked, she put on a scrubbing glove called kesh, made out of palm root. It was abrasive, but not uncomfortably rough. She used this to scrub all the skin on my body, including my face, dousing me with water every now and then.

Kesh and Tas, found here.

The next part was the most interesting! She had a bucket of soapy water, and used a special mesh sack to get suds from the hammam soap, which is made with olive oil and smelled like lemon. She worked up a big lather, and then squeezed it through the mesh onto me. She did this several times, until I was laying in a huge cloud of bubbles! The she gave me a soapy massage, having me flip over halfway through. The splashing with water began again, and rinsed away the aromatic bubbles. She continued to rinse as she had me sit up, then stand up, to make sure nothing was missed. After this, I was given a warm terrycloth towel to wrap up in, and she dried me off with another.

Bubble Treatment! (Source)

I think this is where the traditional hammam experience ended. I opted for a quick oil massage afterwards, which she changed her outfit for and administered in a regular massage room. The whole treatment was great, and I was glad to get rid of the layers of old winter skin– it was the perfect thing to do after a long day of travel, and helped Jeff and I switch into vacation mode.

I have always wished that bath houses were part of American culture (and now, British culture.) Body care used to be a huge priority, and a social event as well– all classes and ages went to the bath houses together. Now it seems more like a private luxury. The other thing is that I think it’s really healthy to see other peoples’ bodies. We see a whole lot of skin these days, but it is mostly on models or other specially selected bodies, usually in a sexual context; or we see images that have been altered– that is so weird, and of course sends really harmful messages about what is normal, healthy or beautiful. I thought it was kind of funny that the hammam lady took one look at me in my bathing suit and commented that I must have children. Yep! This is all normal stuff, and good to acknowledge and talk about. Have you been to a bathhouse in your country, or one that you visited? What did you think?

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28 Responses to The Turkish Hammam Experience

  1. Great Scott February 9, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

    Seriously? WOW! This sounds amazing. And yes, the perfect transition to vacation mode. I’m not sure if I want to visit Turkey – maybe I just want to LIVE there! haha! Thanks for teaching me about what goes on in bath houses. I am shy so likely would have not taken part – but now, I would probably make this first on my list of things to do! Did Jeff enjoy it? Is it a woman scrubbing the men too or a man for the men? Such a treat for this abused winter skin…

    • Ariana February 9, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

      Sarah, I had the choice of male or female, and so did Jeff. He chose a lady, but I think that in Arab cultures, people are more likely to choose their own genders. It was easier to go for this new experience in the smaller setting of our resort, who was used to explaining it all to foreigners. After doing it there, I would be more comfortable going to a more public one.

    • Ariana February 9, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      Oh, and YES– Jeff really enjoyed it!

  2. Hausfrau February 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    Very cool–thanks for sharing the details of your experience! We have had a couple of bathhouse/spa experiences here in Germany, and we had many in Japan (my husband in particular misses the onsen experience terribly–going and sitting in a hot bath with a friend or two). I agree that this kind of bathing is really good for building a healthy body image.

    • Ariana February 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

      Diane, I remember really loving the movie “Shower” that revolves around a Japanese bath house. Have you seen it? Your comment reminded me of that, and I really enjoyed the Japanese bath house culture I observed in it.

  3. Luke February 9, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    They have public baths here in Korea, and I think it is really good. Like you said, I think it is healthy to be exposed to REAL humanity, because.. well, it’s real. Media and whatnot attempts to filter our perceptions through sexual or comparative (competitive?) lenses, this is to increase or self-consciousness and dissatisfaction. Ugh! I could go on and on about this.

    • Ariana February 9, 2012 at 7:30 pm #

      Luke, I could also go on and on (and often do!) about this. The other thing that is so valuable is that it is a social bonding experience, strengthening the collective relationships of women with women and men with men.

  4. Jenny February 9, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    Sounds like an amazing experience. Your posts have put Turkey on my must see list. xx

    • Ariana February 9, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

      I’m glad to hear it, Jenny! I don’t know how long it would have taken us to go if Jeff didn’t have the conference there– but I am SO glad we went, and will definitely look forward to going again.

  5. greatdanasworkshop February 9, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    I love it! How cool! I’m so glad you got to experience this. I knew nothing about the subject, thanks for sharing.

    • Ariana February 9, 2012 at 6:35 pm #

      Dana, I think there are a couple of places in Portland that would be similar. One is the Swedish spa, Loyly (I didn’t get to go, but really wanted to– but you can go with girlfriends and buy treatment packs to apply to each other, which sounds cool) and Common Grounds (I don’t think any treatments are offered here, though– just soaking pools.)

  6. tech.samaritan February 9, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    I wish we had public baths here. I have thought about building a sauna and inviting friends and family over to enjoy together… While not quite the same, it might be the closest we get in these northern (culturally) isolating areas, especially in winter.

    • Ariana February 9, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

      I think that building a sauna is such a great idea! You could definitely do some group rituals involving snow and heat! Especially to celebrate solstice and other winter events.

  7. Chelsey February 9, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    Love your posts of Turkey. We are planning a trip soon and I would love to know where you stayed if you would recommend it. 🙂 [email protected]

    • Ariana February 9, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

      Hi Chelsey, I’ll send you an email with the details. I have mixed feelings about all-inclusive resorts, but it was a good experience overall, for sure!

  8. Karen Kellerford February 9, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    I think you are very brave. I did not even have my first massage until I was 51 and have only had two my entire l life! Although it was very nice in a pampering luxurious sort of way, I was actually scared to death and uncomfortable, at least to some degree, the entire time. I am ashamed that I am ashamed but there it is! I am very grateful to have a body that works. I do not think that it is, ahem, beautiful in any sense of the word. I can’t imagine being unclothed in a public place (around other people). It brings back that old Junior High nightmare of the compulsory gym shower. I have been inundated and obsessed with beautiful print and movie images of beautiful people (as in Victoria secret ads, you know the kind I mean) for so many decades, I am not sure it is possible to undo the damage. I am being honest. I know it isn’t cool.

  9. Ariana February 9, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    A. Karen– I totally hear you! I think that we have been taught that only perfect bodies are fit to be seen. My first massage experience was very intense, and I had a fever afterward. I had to face ALL of my body issues at a young age, when I went to massage school. It was hard at first, but became easier and easier. Then, getting to work with other peoples’ bodies felt like an incredible privilege. There is so much vulnerability there, and I also appreciated the experience of seeing and touching “real” people. Our bodies are sacred and must be respected; yet having a body is the ultimate human experience, and I think it is good for the soul to be able to be vulnerable in this way. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective and experience!

    • Ariana February 9, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

      One more thing– I think it’s unfortunate that most peoples’ first bodywork experiences (mine included) are in a situation where they are completely undressed and feel so vulnerable. In the future, I would highly recommend Cranio Sacral Therapy, since it is very gentle and is performed fully clothed. For a more “hands on” treatment, maybe reflexology, shiatsu or Thai massage would be a good option.

  10. alison owen February 9, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

    I agree about the normal bodies thing. Since starting yoga, I’ve felt much more comfortable in my body- even though yoga is a specific community (mostly health-oriented younger people where I go) there’s still a huge variety of body types to be seen there and it is so nice to get outside the magazine/movie selection of approved bodies. Glad you had fun! I went to a bathhouse in Istanbul and it was one of my favorite experiences there.

  11. Ariana February 10, 2012 at 7:43 am #

    Cool, Alison! Yoga seems to be a type of activity that attracts a really broad range of people these days. It seems like the “being present in your body” part can really invite more community building, and is non-competitive– it’s so different from aerobics classes that used to be equally popular, where a room full of women showed up to sort of punish themselves for an hour!
    By the way, what brought you to live in Istanbul?

  12. Andrew February 11, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    What a great post and description. I really like the mineral spas we have here in Baden. I go after work every so often and just rest in the warm water. I definitely see the social aspect, although am there by myself after a long chaos filled day. I like the German baths as the water just warm and not every pool is so hot. We went to a spa in New Zealand where every pool seemed really hot.
    This kind of thing sounds quite nice. I may have to try one when we go in April.

  13. Ariana February 11, 2012 at 10:13 pm #

    I wish that I had taken advantage of the baths in Germany! I think I was just getting used to everything, and it was another one of those cultural situations that would have been stressful to try to figure out at first– but if I had gone ahead, I am sure it would have been something I would have enjoyed frequently thereafter. The context of doing it in our resort was much easier, and I was so glad that I did.

  14. alison owen February 12, 2012 at 3:01 am #

    Hey Ariana-
    i didn’t live there (wish I had!) but I spent a week there when I was living in england. I love all your photos! The spices are beautiful.

  15. Mommypotamus January 23, 2013 at 10:21 pm #

    Ahh, I felt relaxed just reading this! Adding “bath house” to my bucket list along with mushroom hunting, which I plan to do this spring thanks to your inspiration.

  16. Cadi March 29, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

    I loved this article. I have always been weirded out about going to a bath house and thinking there might be germs around, or that someone had peed on the tile where I am standing, or that the loofah they were using had been used on someone with a skin disorder. But you made it sound so wonderful and relaxing. If there was a Turkish bath house in our little American town, I would definitely be going!!

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