Thursday, December 9, 2010

Naked Turkish

One experience I did not expect to have when we headed to Turkey was being naked among the Turks. This is because I had not really read up on what to do in Turkey because if I had, one of the things on nearly every list is to visit a Hamam, or Turkish bath.
 Our impending trip to the Hamam came up in conversation at breakfast with a large group of Americans also living in Turkey. I became very nervous about the trip after hearing from the girls in the group, "Be prepared, they'll be fascinated with your nipples" and "Turkish woman can't handle how hairy we are." WHAT?! My unease skyrocketed. "Just how naked am I going to have to be? Also, THEY ARE GOING TO COMMENT ON MY NIPPLES TO EACH OTHER? In Turkish?! Should I find out the word for nipples so I know if they're commenting, or do I want to stay oblivious?"

It didn't help my comfort level that Nathan would have our friend Sean with him to translate, and I would be heading in alone as there are separate baths for men and women. The hamam we were headed to was the historic, the Cagaloglu Hamami, which was built by Sultan Mahmut the 1st in 1741 to provide revenue for the Hagia Sophia Mosque. I'll tell you a bit about Sultan Mahmut and the Hagia Sophia in subsequent posts, I'm sure.

We paid for our bath and a scrub down, got our kese (basically a loofah mitten) and the little blocks that showed what level of bath we had paid for, and headed into the main room together. Immediately I had a hail of Turkish being spoken at me. "This is the waiting area for the men," Sean explained. Oh.

"How is this going to work?" I asked. "Aren't you guys going to be in there longer than me? Should I just wait for you when I get out?"

"Aim for 7:30," he said. If you need to ask someone what time it is, say "Zaman yedi tane otuz tane?" he added.

I headed down the woman's hallway. The hallway opened up into an atrium with balconies that went up two stories on either side. I was directed up a flight of stairs and led to a little paneled room with cubby holes. I was given a key to one, told to undress down to my underwear, handed a small red towel, a peshtamal, to wrap around my waist and plastic sandals to wear into the main room. As I shuffled topless down the hallway, I suddenly realized I couldn't remember my Turkish phrase, not even a little bit. Something yedi something otuz...ugh. Apparently my Turkish disappeared along with my shirt.

The woman's area looks just like this.
I made it to the main room, which featured a gobek tasi, a large marble octagon-shaped stone about 2 feet off the floor on which approximately 25 people (in this case, topless women of varying nationalities), could comfortably fit lying down. Apparently, a fire is built under this large marble stone, which heats the room and causes a sauna-like atmosphere. The women lying in the center of the stone were steaming as they waited for their turn to move to one of the 8 sides where they will be scraped, massaged, and washed. I climbed up past the equally topless tellaks (women who are a combination of masseuse and washerwoman) spread my towel out on the marble and laid down.

A view of the ceiling in the main room of the Cagaloglu Hamam.

It was somewhat difficult to relax as I was wracking my brain to remember my Turkish phrase, and I kept getting smacked on the forehead with the large droplets of water that were falling down three stories from the beautiful domed ceiling, but the room was lovely. Everyone's voices were that combination of echoed and muffled like you often hear at an indoor pool. Splashing sounds came from the little alcoves around the room where women were having their hair washed. A tellak tapped me on the ankle and gestured me to the edge of her corner. I scooted myself into position on my back and handed her the little block that said that I had also paid for a keselenmek, which is basically an exfoliating scrub down.

The dark, short and bent old woman doused me with a bucket of warm water and set about scrubbing my arms, stomach, and legs with my kese. I had heard that the mitten ends up gray with dead skin, but I must have been remarkably exfoliated already because mine was unsatisfactorily the original beige color after my scrubbing. She rinsed me, then brought out a large bag with a small bar of soap in it. She accordianed the bag causing a cascade of bubbles to drip down out of it onto my stomach, which is a very odd, though soothing, sensation. She then soaped me up and massaged my arms, clavicle area, then had me flip so she could get my back, shoulders, legs, and then feet. Surprisingly enjoyable, especially because thankfully she avoided the particularly awkward areas. I had been psyching myself up to be cool with whatever was coming my way because I didn't want to come across as a prudish American. I suppose my sigh of relief gave me away anyway though.

After the final bucket of water over the top of my head, she pointed me into an alcove behind her to await a thorough hair washing. I sat there alone, with my bangs dripping in my eyes, in my underwear, holding my sopping and cold peshtamal and wondered if I had understood her correctly. Wait here? For her? She looked busy in there. I gingerly pulled a copper bowl out of the cistern next to me and dumped it over my head.Was that it? I stood up. I sat back down. I stood up and peered out the arched doorway. A different old bent lady in her underwear waddled over with some shampoo. She uttered a string of Turkish which I took to mean go back in and sit down. So I did. She soaped up my hair and then poured another bucket of water on my head. Somewhat less soothing this time. I was getting tired of buckets of water on my head.

Then she pointed across the room and said something more in Turkish. I found my sandals and shuffled questioningly across the room to another alcove. This one had a neck-deep pool in it with a small fountain arching over one end. I stepped out of my sandals and into the pool. Sitting in a pool in a small low lit room by yourself is not the most stimulating of experiences, so I spent 10 minutes or so floating and then I headed back out to the marble slab. I laid there for what felt like hours (but was likely only 5 minutes) and decided it must be 7:30 now. I headed out into the foyer to find out.

Men's Waiting Area
Frank Tophoven/Laif/Redux
My mangled phrase brought only a look of utter confusion from the tea lady until I pointed at the imaginary watch on my wrist. She promptly pointed at the clock on the wall to my right. Ugh. Also, it was not yet 6:30. This was going to be awhile. I ordered some apple tea, realized I had no pockets and therefore, no lira, and was at a loss. The lady explained in very limited English that I could pay after I got dressed.  At 6:30, I headed up to change my clothes, peered out into the men's waiting room, got stared at a whole lot, (my boys not in sight) and picked a seat to wait, hoping that they'd venture out before 7:30.

Luckily, they did. Their experience had been similar, though they didn't have a pool to luxuriate in like the women. We organized our tips, and I ventured in to find my particular bent, half-naked old woman to tip. I couldn't identify her, so I tipped the lady who was in the corner where I had been and hoped that it was her. We set out into the evening, clean, smooth, and exhausted. Apparently, luxuriating takes it out of you.

All images from Google Search. Yours? Let me know, and I'll credit them.


  1. WOW! You are so brave!! I would have been a nervous wreck. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. I cracked up the entire time I read this! I hope that if I ever get a chance to visit a Turkish bath I am as brave as you are. And just so we are clear, all the other women were topless right? And if you are already topless, why leave the underwear on? Sanitation reasons??

    I cannot wait to read more about your trip!!

  3. Yes, all the other women, including some of the washerwomen(?) were topless, and everyone was wearing underwear. I have no idea why the underwear was left on (the guys end up in only the towel or less even), though I was extremely thankful.