Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Istanbul, Turkey: The Truth about the Traditional Turkish Bath - January 2016

For me the thought of a massage conjures up reflections of gentle kneading and peaceful relaxation with the light aroma of lavender swirling in the room and the sound of babbling brook in the distance. If that, too, is your vision of a massage, run as fast and as far as you can away from the traditional Turkish bath.

A far cry from a soft Swedish massage or an Indian head rub, the traditional Turkish massage is a different experience entirely. You either love it or you hate it, but before you schedule a session, let me do you a favor and break it down for you. I wish I had been the wiser.

Step 1: The Customs and Attire. Upon arrival in a traditional Turkish hamam, or bath house, you will be escorted to a private room where you are instructed to undress and don a pestemal. A pestemal is a colorful checkered cloth or bath-wrap that is tied around your bottom half. If you are a woman, and you are lucky, you will also get another swath of fabric to cover your upper half. In addition to the fabric swathes, you are provided thick wooden sandals and a locker to store your personal items during the bath.

Step 2: The Roast. After changing into the appropriate attire, you will be led into the hararet or hot room. There you will be told to lie down on a marble slab and sweat. It is typically around 42-48ºC/ 108-118ºF in the hararet. You will be left to sweat for a long, long time. You'll feel dehydrated and beg for water. You'll wonder what you are doing and if you'll survive. This is the perfect time to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery around you; some of the last sights you may see if you aren't fortunate enough to survive the incredible Turkish bath experience will be towering marble pillars, ornate artwork and magnificent domed ceilings. The roasting period is intended for patrons to loosen up. Surrounding the göbektaşı, or the raised platform above the central heating source, there are several basins where you can draw scolding hot water. Approximate roasting time: 15 minutes (feels like: a lifetime.)

Step 3: The Massage. The massage begins when the masseur enters the room and beckons you over to a new marble slab. Your masseur may or may not speak English; he may be a handsome young man or she may be a large, angry woman. Regardless of your luck, the massage commences as the masseur uses a metal goblet to cover your body with warm water. Once your body is thoroughly drenched, the masseur uses soaped towels or a pillowcase-resembling-cloth to create massive bubbles and a thick lather. Every inch of your body --- I mean, every inch of your body --- is then soaped and scrubbed. The masseur then proceeds to firmly massage your back, arms and legs. In my experience, 'firmly' is an understatement; I would have felt more comfortable describing it as violently or savagely. In any event, your cries or yelps will be ignored, and sometimes your complaints will be met with more severe treatment and laughter.

Step 4: The Body Scrub. After your "relaxing" body cleanse and massage is complete, it's time for the scrubbing. Your masseur will guide you from the marble slab where you've been laying to a sitting position underneath a water faucet. There you will be rinsed with cool water. The cool water will feel heavenly, but beware: the worst is yet to come. To your dismay, the masseur will grab a coarse goat-haired washing brush and proceed to scrub your body. The brush feels like sandpaper on your sensitive, hot skin. Again, crying or begging for it to stop will only make it worse. The pain will end with the masseur is pleased with the amount of skin collected in the basin. Only then will you be rinsed one last time and freed to go.

Step 5: The Aftermath. Following the trauma that took place within the hararet, you will be escorted into a small shower-like stall and asked to disrobe. You are to put your wet "clothes" in a plastic bag, and are given a white sheet to drape around your body and head. In some hamams you are able to extend your experience by using a sauna, in others there may be showers, but in all there is a soğukluk, or the cooling down room. The cooling down room is a lovely place where you can sit on wooden benches surrounded by questionably erotic artwork, and breathe a sigh of relief that you survived the experience. Most hamams offer bottled water, Turkish coffee and Turkish tea in the sogukluk.

A traditional Turkish bath will leave you dehydrated, exhausted, sore and inexplicably clean. That being said, you should try it if for nothing else to join the club of violated, confused survivors.


  1. It sounds like torture but is clearly tremendous for the mind and soul - I'm not so sure about the body!