Getting Naked with Strangers: Turkish Bathing in Istanbul

I’m not a spa person. I’m not even a massage or mani-pedi person, because I don’t really like being touched by strangers.

However.

When in Istanbul, I got down to my skivvies and hung out in a hundreds-of-years-old bath with a bunch of other similarly un-attired ladies and got a rough scrub-down and shampooing by a large and saggy professional. Because there was just no way I was leaving Turkey without having a Turkish bath. No matter how anxious or uncomfortable I was afraid it might be.

The hamam I chose was Çemberlitas, which was built in 1584. It’s a beautiful building and very clean and well-maintained. (I didn’t take any photos there, for a maybe obvious reason. If it’s not obvious: people were fairly naked.) It has separate but (apparently) identical bathing areas and services for men and women. And, importantly for me, it has separate attendants for men and women. I guess in other hamams women are attended by men? Which seems super weird to me, especially in a Muslim country. But here, women get female attendants.

First, I paid. That’s always the way these things start, right? I chose to go traditional-style, because I hadn’t come all this way to have to wash myself. The receptionist gave me a token indicating that I’d paid for a traditional bath, a peştamal, which is thinner than a towel and is used as a wrap, and a pair of cheap, black, one-size-fits-all underwear. (Yes, they’re single-use. They come with a tag still on so you feel better about that.)

In the dressing room, I changed into the one-size-kinda-fits-all-except-not-really-these-are-sorta-baggy underwear, wrapped myself in the peştamal, locked up my stuff, and walked into the main bathing area. It’s a huge, round room, with small, star-shaped skylights far above your head. I can’t remember if those are the only sources of light, but the room was very dim. Around the outside of the room are private basin and shower areas, and in the center is a raised, heated platform. The vast space makes every splash and chatter echo.

I took a seat at the outer edge of the room and took a few minutes to warm up and get comfortable. It was a very weird thing to be hanging out in my underwear with a bunch of strange ladies, except that after a minute, I just stopped caring because nobody else cared, either. There was a whole variety of bodies in that room: from a group of young Australian girls, perfectly tanned and toned with pierced belly buttons, to older German and Turkish ladies with rolls and bags and scars and stretch marks. And literally no one cared about what they or anyone else looked like. I don’t know what I thought before going in–that someone was going to point and laugh at me because I don’t look like the models in the publicity photos on their website? To be fair, the Turkish attendants might have been making fun of me, but I will never know because I don’t speak Turkish, and anyway, I think they were much more interested in gossiping among themselves.

After I had gotten reasonably sweltery, I moved up to the center platform. It was a little crowded, so I had to wait for a bit for an attendant to free up. Then she called me over and had me lay down to get exfoliated, which involved having three or ten layers of skin scrubbed off by a surprisingly strong older lady with a rough mitt who cared shockingly little about how much her boobs swung in my face. She rubbed me down, sudsed me up, and then washed me off with water dumped from a small plastic pail. By this point, having gotten over the fact that I was mostly naked, I also got over my general discomfort of being tended to by a slightly modernized version of a body servant. It was, at moments, pretty painful, but only in a physical sense, not psychological. These ladies don’t joke around when it comes to scrubbing.

After that, she moved me over to one of the spigots around the outside of the room to wash my hair with some powerfully apple-scented shampoo from an industrial-size bottle. It looked like something you’d buy at a 99-cent store.

I should note that every time she wanted me to move, she just smacked me with her palm, because we had no language in common besides minor violence. Roll over? Smack on the thigh. Walk over there? Smack on the arm. I understood and obeyed.

After she was done with me, I wandered over to the hot tub. There was no one else there when I arrived, so I soaked and floated for a little while in peace. It was incredibly relaxing, the warmth and the water and the fact that no one was hitting me or scouring my skin. Then the Australian girls came over, and having a bunch of people nearby speaking a language I understood ruined the atmosphere, so I decided it was time to go.

When I walked out, they handed me a warm towel to dry myself off with, which was important because the peştamal was completely soaked from me dragging it around in the damp, puddle-y bath. You can lounge around afterward and drink tea, but after five days in Istanbul, I had already drowned myself in tea, so I just got dressed and left.

Walking back out into daylight, I blinked at the brightness. I felt the slight rawness of my skin, how it felt cleaner than it had in days, maybe ever. I tried to breathe deep and slow, the way I’d naturally started breathing in the bath, to counteract the bustle of rush-hour street traffic and the griminess of the city already encroaching on me. I wanted the peaceful feeling to last as long as possible.

Even though I mostly went to Çemberlitas as a dare to myself, I really enjoyed it, so much so that I’m looking forward to repeating the experience. Hammam Dar el-Bacha in Marrakech, here I come.

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2 thoughts on “Getting Naked with Strangers: Turkish Bathing in Istanbul

  1. I love Turkish baths!!! It’s honestly so peaceful, and there is just something about getting washed! Enjoy your next bath! =)

  2. Pingback: Hotels of the Weird and Famous | Go Go Go

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