Getting Out of My Comfort Zone: A Trip to a Turkish Bath House
It’s not every day you get naked in a room of strangers. But this is a story of how I did exactly that.
The year? 2015. I’d come to Europe to visit my friend Heather; she’d moved to London and I wanted to see her. Heather and I grew up and went to school together. My first memories of her go back to Junior High and she was someone who I just somehow managed to maintain a connection with even after High School. When I found a seat sale, I quickly took the opportunity to book the flight and we started planning our three week trip. London, Cork for St. Patrick’s Day, Budapest, Istanbul and Cappadocia.
In London, Heather had a pretty solid group of girlfriends and we found ourselves with 5 other women joining us in Budapest and Turkey. One of her friends, Sibel, is part Turkish and we were invited to stay in her parents’ apartment while they were away. The entire apartment unit was owned by the family, so on the main floor apartment lived her grandmother and on the top unit, I believe her aunt and uncle. On our first evening we gathered with her family for a home cooked Turkish meal. It was lovely. I love experiencing these types of authentic moments when I travel.
The longer we stayed, the more the group thinned out and during our last full day our group of 7 became a group of 4. Sibel decided to take us to a Hammam.
Some speculate that Turkish Hammam’s are the oldest surviving bath tradition in the world. It was a place of socializing as well as a place for politics, meetings and mother’s to search out suitable wives for their sons, as marriages were pre-arranged at the time. Born out of the Roman Bath system, the Hammam flourished in popularity. But the Roman Bath system was based on still water - pools. Hammams had become an important part of Islamic Religious Practice and still water was considered too dirty for ablution, so Hammam’s use running water. Roman Baths were also typically large places centrally located - Hammam's are smaller and are numerous, often found near Mosques.
For Muslims, one of the five pillars of faith is prayer, before which the faithful must go through ablution - a purification or cleansing. Mosques tend to have a place for worshipers to wash their hands, feet and face, but Hammam’s became a way of performing a full body ablution, which is why you can find them near Mosques. Non-Muslims can also participate in the public bathing practice.
Hammam’s are typically a gendered experiences - men/male and women/female are separated. Young boys, usually up to age 5 or 6 are allowed in the women’s space.
When we arrived we were taken to a room to disrobe. Guests can choose to wear a bathing suit, but the removal of clothes provides the best experience. Guests are often provided a peshtemal - a light woven towel. They're amazing - I bought one in the market - they dry so fast! We were taken through a room that looked like a socializing/lobby space and into what felt like a sauna. The room was circular in nature, with little alcoves for people to rest inside, and the ambiance was punctuated by low light. I came in wearing my bathing suit shorts and a tankini. The other girls were in bikinis. We sit down in the alcove and the other girls remove their tops and I’m faced with a dilemma - do I do the same?
As a plus sized person more often concerned about hiding my size than displaying it, I tend to shy away from places and activities requiring public nudity. I’ll find change rooms at pools for example, instead of changing in the open. European culture is a lot less concerned about the role of nudity in daily life and I think they often tend to worry less about whether nudity itself is overtly sexual. I find North American culture tends to be more reserved about that - it seems like nudity must equal sexual. Consider, for example, social media terms and conditions in regards to female nipples in posted photos - good luck posting about breast feeding. So the other girls had no reservation being from European culture. I look across the sauna and I see two other women on the other side, also topless. The female attendants working the Hammam enter - and they are only wearing long flowing skirts.
Forward moving progress rarely happens when we choose to remain in our comfort zone, so I decided to go for it. I tell myself, most of these women I will never see again, and Heather’s got her glasses off and can only see blurs anyway. Plus this is my body, and the only opinion of it that matters right now is my own.
While we sit and sauna in the little alcove, a tap is continually running with water and we’re provided tools to use to rinse our bodies as we sit. It feels good to rinse the sweat off. I wouldn't call Istanbul "dirty", but after a couple weeks of traveling and being in a city that's grittier than others, I'm ready to feel clean. The space is beautiful and relaxing. We sit and talk for awhile and the acoustics are rich - I start to imagine was singing in this space would sound like. Eventually an attendant comes over and takes us one by one to a large circular table-like surface in the center of the room. And this...this is when the magic begins and I’m converted to full blown Hammam Enthusiast.
I’m called over last - the other girls are done their baths and are out in the relaxation room. My attendant doesn’t speak any English which just amplifies the experience for me. She gestures for me to lay on my stomach on the table (called a göbek taşı). She has soap and a rough cloth and with a magical twist to add in air, I’m covered in bubbles. She starts scrubbing and it is glorious - I’m in Heaven. She’s in between my toes and up my calves, all over my back and neck. She’s a little displeased my shorts aren’t more panty-like in coverage but does her best. I nod off - it feels like I'm getting a massage. She’s speaking, and at first I thinks she’s talking to a second attendant working on one of the ladies I saw on the other side of the room, but then she’s tapping me and I awake from what I can only describe as a trip into the Bliss and realize she’s trying to tell me to turn over. The ladies laugh at me for what they thought to be me falling asleep. I’m now on my back and she’s scrubbing my front. I never could have imagined being in a public bath house laying topless on a marble table with another topless woman scrubbing my breasts - but there we were. She finishes and takes me back to the alcove and she rinses off all the soap and dead skin and I feel like a new person.
I return to our little relaxation room. Typically, guests can recline and hydrate, relax on a bed like surface for a bit, but the girls have been waiting for me and it’s time to go. We leave...and realize that we’re not 100% sure where we are or how we’re going to hail a taxi. But that's another story. At least Sibel speaks Turkish.
I highly recommend a Hammam experience if you find yourself in the Middle East. They can be found across the former Ottoman Empire and while I walked away feeling clean, I also walked away feeling empowered and like I had reclaimed a bit of my own womanhood that had been lost in a maze of North American ideology. As I start the planning for my next European adventure, I’ve already tried to figure out how I can fit Istanbul into the itinerary so I can go back and visit another Hammam.
Left: Photo taken by Sean Biehle (in 1994) available on Flickr. Great example of guests in peshtemals. Shared under a creative common license.
Middle: Taken from the Gedikpasa Hamami website, you can see the bubble massage portion of the bath and an example of the marble table one lies on. While I'll admit I don't technically have a license for use, the link to the website is here and the website contains many more images of this particular facility: gedikpasahamami.com
Right: Often, nourishment is a part of the experience, like at Alf Layla Wa Layla Turkish Bath in Ammam, Jordan. Photo is from their Instagram account 1000laylawalayla