Travel: The Turkish bath 

Public bathhouses have been an important part of Turkish culture for centuries

click to enlarge A woman wrapped in a pestamal relaxes in a hamam.
  • A woman wrapped in a pestamal relaxes in a hamam.

It is the early 20th century in a rural village in central Turkey. The Great War (WWI) has not yet begun and the villagers are happy in their ignorance of the strife that is to come. The population is made up of Muslims and Christians alike, peaceably co-existing in mutual acceptance of their differences. It is still two decades before the Christians are forcefully marched off to Greece and replaced with Muslims from that country. The Ottoman Empire is in its dying days, and the modern Republic of Turkey has yet to rise from its ashes.

In the hills surrounding the town, there is, perhaps, a young goatherd tending to his flock. In the village proper, a weathered, old potter is practising his trade, crafting pots to sell for profit. It is an era when women led a quiet, cloistered existence, mindful of their diminished status and respectful of their husbands. Those of the Muslim faith who are disloyal to their spouse, may expect a public beating and condemnation to a life in the brothel for their indiscretion. One of the few places that the womenfolk from such a village can relax and socialize together away from the watchful eyes of the men is at the hamam, or the Turkish bath.

Before the advent of modern plumbing, public bathing was a way of life. More than simply a place to wash, the hamam was a place to socialize, to relax and unwind, a place where people of all ages and ranks, but not sex, came together. Part of Ottoman and Turkish culture for centuries, the customs of the Turkish bath evolved from a combination of traditions: Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, and of course, Turkish.

A traditional hamam is made up of three separate areas. The first is a warm room where the bather can relax and unwind, perspiring freely in the warm, dry air. Next is the hot room. Here one is vigorously scrubbed clean and perhaps massaged a little before being doused in cold water. The final room is for cooling down, relaxing and drinking tea. Women will socialize and gossip while waxing their bodies, dying their hair and decorating their hands and feet with henna. Older women may be on the lookout for a potential wife for their sons. Men may use this time for discussing manly affairs such as business, politics and the news.

Often an elaborate event, women of higher stature may require a servant to help with her multitude of bathing accessories. A pestamal is a colourful checkered wrap of silk or cotton for wrapping around the body. Patens are worn on the feet, wooden clogs often intricately carved and inlaid with silver or mother of pearl. Toiletries are carried in a copper or gold plated tarak kutusu, or comb box, and an ornate, grooved copper tas is required to pour water over the bather. Three towels are needed; for the head, torso and waist. Also necessary are a mirror, a jewel box, a bowl of henna, eyebrow darkener and a copper bowl to mix it in, as well as a box of surma for lining the eyes and, of course, rose water perfume.

Fast forward now 100 years to the early 21st century. Modern Turkey is teeming with tourists and underground plumbing has all but obliterated the need for public bathhouses. But such places still exist. I found a hamam near my guesthouse. Clearly, these days, such a place caters mainly to tourists. From the outside, the building was unremarkable. Curious, I stepped inside.

A few people were milling about, some drinking tea, bodies wrapped in the traditional checkered pestamal. A portly woman took my money and led me to a changing cubicle and handed me a key. Her English was limited. I removed my clothes and slipped into the pair of flip-flops left for me, today's practical plastic version of the wooden patens, or clogs. Wrapping myself in my pestamal, I stepped back into the lobby wondering what came next.

I was led through a small door into a steamy and cavernous space with high domed ceilings and the sound of water running. The whole place appeared to be carved from stone, from the low bench around the perimeter to the basins on the wall. Voices softly floated through the steam from the men's section next door. But we were alone.

"Sit," I was commanded by the small, dark woman leading the way. "Wash." She turned the tap on above the stone basin and handed me a plastic bowl with which to pour water over myself. I suppose only the elite who frequent the high-end hamams get to use a traditional copper tas. The poor working class, such as myself must settle for pink plastic. Then she disappeared, leaving me alone to douse myself in water.

After about 10 minutes, I started to get restless. I suppose it would be more fun if the room was full of naked women, all chatting and gossiping and checking each other out. I decided to poke around a bit. Cavernous little rooms radiated from a central area, water running over the warm stone floor, draining in some unseen corner. Furtively, I peaked in one of the rooms. A naked girl was laid out on a granite slab, or table, beneath a blanket of bubbles. Voices from the men's section echoed quietly through the steam. I returned to my wash basin. Waited. Finally, the small dark woman returned, in a bathing suit this time, to lead me into another room.

She removed my pestamal, laid me out on a smooth, granite table top, and proceeded to administer a vigorous exfoliation and massage, turning my muscles to pulp and likely removing a layer of skin. My nakedness was concealed within an envelope of insubstantial, frothy bubbles. Dubiously eyeing her bathing accessories, I tried to enjoy the experience instead of obsessing over how many bodies had been scrubbed with the same mitt prior to mine. I ordered my hygiene-obsessed brain to shut off for a moment, to simply relax and relish the fact that I was experiencing something that has been an important part of Turkish culture for centuries. She washed my hair, working her fingers into my scalp, scrubbed between my toes and behind my ears, worked at the calluses on my feet, and finally, doused me with warm water, washing away the bubbles and exposing my nakedness once again.

Back in the lobby, wrapped in a fresh, dry pestamal, my hair twisted into a neat turban, I was offered a seat and a steaming little glass of apple tea. Several other semi-clad bathers were contentedly seated about the room, skin raw and glowing. As I relaxed, my mind wandered back to the exfoliation mitt. I had read that some of the higher end hamams offer you the option of purchasing your own, personal bathing accessories. After all, public bathing isn't exactly hygienic! Warm and content, loose and limber, I sat for a while, just watching people come and go, wishing that today's modern standards of cleanliness and sanitation weren't permanently etched in my brain.

Finishing my tea, I finally headed back to my changing cubicle. Perhaps, I mused, it would be prudent to head back to my guesthouse for a quick shower!


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