Naked, raw, confused: My visit to a Turkish Hamam

Have they forgotten about me?

I am naked except for a small wet towel clinging to my waist and lying alone on a large stone slab staring at the small holes in the roof.

The heat is smothering. I feel it in the air and from the stone beneath me. My face is covered with beads of sweat, which defeats the purpose of the shower I just had. I spent so long throwing water over myself my fingers pruned.

I don’t know how long I’ve been lying here. Maybe 10 minutes. Maybe 35. The attendant in the black silky nighty who put me here has disappeared. I hear talking and splashing water.

Should I get up?

There is no one to answer my questions. The staff don’t speak English and my Turkish is limited to hello, thank you, tea and kebab.

I wanted to visit a traditional Turkish Bath, known as a hamam, while I was in Turkey but I wanted the experience to be as authentic as possible. I didn’t think I’d find that at the hamams near Sultanhamet in Istanbul that were handing out brochures in English or at the fancy spa in Goreme charging 25 euros. Many Turkish people frequent hamams and if I was them I’d be avoiding the overpriced spots full of giggling backpackers. So I waited until I was off the tourist trail.

The result was one of the most invasive, awkward and confusing experiences I’ve ever had.

Yeni Hamam outside

I almost didn’t notice Yeni Hamam. I’d turned down a quiet street out of the bazaar in Antakya and the colours through the arched door caught my eye. I stepped back to take a photo and saw a faded sign swinging above me identifying the Turkish bath. Another small sign above the door read “bayan”, Turkish for women.

Might as well check it out.

I tentatively stepped through the doorway and down the dark, stone hallway, turning a corner to stand at the entrance of a room lined with white cubicles. The only light is from a hole in the middle of the huge dome ceiling.

Should I stay?

But it was too late. The three women behind the counter had seen me.

A game of charades followed in which we established I wanted a bath, scrub and massage as well as a towel and shampoo. The larger woman held up a 20 lira note and a 10 lira note and I pulled the same from my purse. Another women handed me two towels and I surrendered my modesty.

Changing area in Yeni Hamam

The bath

From what I’d heard about Turkish Baths, I assumed the experience would be similar to visiting an onsen (hot spring) in Japan. That meant getting naked.  I wasn’t too fazed. While nudity isn’t common in female changerooms in Australia (we tend to hunch over, drape a towel over our back and hop around under it until we’re semi-dressed – think Bridget Jones trying to hide her “wobbly bits” from Mr Darcy) I can appreciate that attitudes are different around the world.

When in Turkey right?

I stripped off in a white cubicle that had a hole the size of a computer screen in the door and reappeared in a blue fluffy bath towel.  One of the women shakes her head, points at the other – much smaller – towel and sends me back to the cubicle.

I reemerged and was directed down a hallway to my left. My petite non-English speaking attendant led me into another large room with a dome roof. The giant slab was in the middle and thick stone walls, slightly higher than me, created booths around the side. I was directed into one and sat on a stone stool facing a thick, deep stone basin with two taps. My attendant gestured for me to take off my towel but seemed to be OK with me just lowering it to my waist.

Um…what am I supposed to do now?

The attendant ran the water, filled a small plastic bowl with water and dumped it over my head.

What?!

She handed the bowl to me and left. I sat on the stone and threw the water over my body for what seemed like a very long time. If the booth had a door it would have felt like a cell. The only light was from more small holes in the roof.

I wonder if kids climb on the roof and look throw the holes?

After I was suitably drenched I got up and peer around the edge of my booth. A large woman was lying on her back on the stone and her attendant was scrubbing her with a rough cloth. The whole towel thing had confused me – I wasn’t sure if I was meant to be completely naked. I could see the woman on the stone was naked on top but the attendant was blocking my view of her lower half. I subtly tried to establish what she was wearing – a little concerned what I might see if the answer was “nothing”. The attendant moved revealing….underwear.

Are you kidding? Aw man!

I could have kept my underwear on. Instead I was the strange foreigner who went starkers – by choice. From what I can gather this differs from hamam to hamam. Some will make you strip off, others will insist you wear something on your bottom half. If you can’t establish the custom in your particular hamam, perhaps keep something on unless you’re told to take it off.

I was debating creeping back out to the changing area to get my underwear when the attendant saw me and waved me back into my booth.

I went back to throwing water on myself.

Paintwork in Yeni Hamam

The scrub

Eventually my attendant got me and put me on the stone. Where I waited for a long time.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine

I counted the holes in the roof. I’d established there were nine groups of nine around the outside but only four in the centre. By the time to attendant returned, the lack of symmetry was frustrating me. In the booth next to me were two women, sitting topless on their stone stools and chatting away. Hamams are visited as a social activity as well as for cleansing and relaxation. It’s where women and men (the areas are segregated) come to catch up with their friends. My visit may have been less awkward if I’d had someone to share my confusion with…then I wouldn’t have been the only idiot in there without their underwear.

Women

My attendant reappeared.

I shuffled over to the edge of the stone slab and rested by head on the upside down plastic bucket. The woman took a rough cloth and started scrubbing me down.

Owwwwwwww

I’d been warned to expect but that didn’t make it any more pleasant. She scrubbed my legs then tapped me on the shoulder and waved her arms. I think the translation was “turn over”. I turned my freshly scrubbed thighs onto the hot slab.

Oh f%&* that stings.

I had been scrubbed raw.

My attendant sat me up so she could do my arms and pointed at the clumps of dead skin she’d peeled off my body.

That’s kinda gross….and kinda cool.

When she got to my left arm she tapped my ring finger and looked at me.

Oh here we go….

I shook my head and she smiled at me. I’m sure I saw pity in those eyes. Then she proudly held up her own wedding ring, before holding up two fingers and patting her tummy. Two kids. I shook my head again. That smile returned.

I am disappointing Turkish women everywhere I go.

She scrubbed my arms, up my neck and then started on my face.

Hang on…isn’t this the same cloth you used on my butt????

Covered in little rolled up balls of my own skin, I was led back to the booth to rinse off.

Yeni Hamam entrance

The wash

Back on the stone slab my attendant filled the plastic bucket with soap and water and washed me down. The soapy water was so slippery I slid around the stone when she rubbed my legs. No part of me was safe. She even tied my towel around me like a diaper.

This isn’t embarrassing at all…..

Then it was back my booth for more rinsing. This time I was given shampoo.

The massage

“Massage,” the attendant said when she came to fetch me one last time.

I returned to the slab, lying face down while she started massaging my back.

Oh now this is alright.

My towel kept being tugged lower and lower and her hands went everywhere. She pulled my arms out from under my head and my hand came to rest right between her legs. I didn’t move an inch.

Ok now this is awkward again.

When she vigorously massaged my stomach I was grateful I hadn’t eaten lunch yet.  After she finished rubbing my slippery, ring-less fingers, I was sent back to the booth.

I sat on the stone stool, filled the plastic bucket and threw it over my head for the last time. I wrapped myself in the fluffy towel and plodded back to the changing area

I don’t think I’ve ever been this clean.

I was scrubbed, washed and massaged all over.

I didn’t even know her name.

Yeni Hamam from outside

Yeni Hamam is in Çankaya Sokok, near the bazaar in Antakya. My scrub, massage, bath and towel hire cost 30 lira (€11).