What happens in the hamam…

… doesn’t always stay in the hamam, because there’s no fun in that.

I had my first (and only) hamam – or Turkish bath as it’s called in English –  experience surprisingly in Nicosia, Cyprus and not in Turkey, despite having been living here for a year a half now. Truth be told, I just couldn’t muster up the courage to bare nearly all, etven if it were suppose to make me feel divine after all. Another little secret, it’s all worth the “trouble”.

Previously a church, it was converted into a hamam during the Ottoman period
Previously a church, it was converted into a hamam during the Ottoman period

I was cursed –  or blessed, depending on how you see it – with rain during my last days in Cyprus and whilst wandering around in the capital, we came across the Grand Turkish Bath (Büyük Hamam) and immediately I thought it would be a good idea to go there since there was no joy in being outside in such depressing weather. It actually snowed just a few days after I left, so that tells you what kind of weather we were actually dealing with.

Had we not made it to the Greek side of Nicosia that day, we’d have got to the co-ed session that afternoon for some TLC. Thank god that never happened because I doubt I’m ever going to be ready for that. It’s to be noted that hamams are usually a single sex affair and very few, in touristic areas, are co-ed.

What are hamams?

The sanctity of the hamam
The sanctity of the hamam

Hamams are the Turkish version of the Roman baths, with similar architecture including their marble interior. Originally a place where men would cleanse before prayer, it has evolved to a social and cultural institution and now to a place where tourists can come to relax and have some TLC after a long day.

Choosing a service

The hamam I went to (and most actually) had different service to accommodate everyone’s need and tastes.

Self-service – DIY. You are given all the “amenities” and left to do figure it out on your own. Definitely not recommended if it’s your first time.

Traditional – Try if you dare. This usually involved a head to toe scrub and wash, by one of the attendants, often in public for everyone else to see. Initially embarrassing but a small price to pay on your dignity. This is the one I went for.

Traditional with add-ons – Different hamams will have different options. The one I went to had different therapeutic and luxurious foam massages.

You will usually pay upfront before you go into the actual hamam so make your choice carefully, although I doubt they’ll object to adding a few things as you go on if they’re not very busy.

What do I bring with me?

It’s often good to ask in advance what the hamam includes in their service or not. The Grand Turkish Bath had an all-inclusive service so they provided with slippers, soaps,a peştemal (a big woven cloth which can be used as an alternative to towels), a kese (a traditional exfoliating mitt) and some towels. However some others might require you to bring your own stuff. Verify in advance, if possible. It’s also good to have a change of underwear and a towel, just in case.

What do I (not) wear?

You won’t be wearing much but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be wearing anything. Women will usually keep their underwear but not necessarily their bras – I kept mine and lost it in the middle of my scrub, pointless – and wrap their peştemal around their body. Men on the other hand strip down and wrap their peştemal around their waists. Please keep it on at all time.

So, what actually happens?

Every hamam is distinctive. My friends who have been to the less tourist-y ones had a different but equally satisfying experience. I mentioned it was my first time at a hamam so the ladies took real good care of me. Also it was because it was off peak tourist seasons: I had the hot room all to myself until I was joined by a not very easily embarrassed Russian lady.  They showed me around and proceeded to tell me what I was required to do.

The hot room was all in marble with several small alcoves for washing. In the middle was the göbektaşı, a massive raised heated platform. The first step is to loosen you up and get you all sweaty. I was told to wash and lay on the platform after which someone would come check on me. Fifteen minutes later, a woman who looked like the matchmaker in Mulan (but nicer) xame and asked if I wanted to have my scrub now or later; I chose to have it later. The hotness of the platform was slowly lulling me to sleep and a nap was definitely more tempting. I didn’t have my watch or phone so I can’t really be sure but I definitely slept for more than 45 minutes.

An hour later, the attendant came back again and told me it was time. Shudder. She lay the peştemal on the platform and told me to lie on my tummy. She soaked my body with warm water, took the kese and then started scrubbing my back. Then she moved on to the rest of my body, lifting my legs and forcing me into an impromptu yoga workout.

After being initially embarrassed about the amount of dirt being scrubbed out, I closed my eyes and just tried to get used to the idea of having someone bathe me. No, I still will not get used to that but I did feel light and extremely clean when she was finally done. She threw another jug of hot and then cool water on my body after which I went to have a shower whilst she cleaned the platform before proceeding to the Russian lady.

Cleaner than I have ever been, I lay again for some time in the hot room just enjoying the quietness of everything knowing that I’d have to brave the weather once again as soon as I would go out. They also had beds and sofas where you could lounge on whilst you indulged in some Turkish coffee or tea but I didn’t. I got dressed, dried my hair and then thanked them before I ventured out into the city again.

Cosy coffee room after a divine experience
Combination of traditional and luxurious: cosy coffee room after a divine experience

As clean as I have ever been, I lay again for some time in the hot room just enjoying the quietness of everything knowing that I’d have to brave the weather once again as soon as I would go out. They also had beds and sofas where you could lounge on whilst you indulged in some Turkish coffee or tea but I didn’t. I got dressed, dried my hair and then thanked them before I ventured out into the city again.

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9 thoughts on “What happens in the hamam…”

  1. This. Is. Heaven. I love a good 3-rd party scrub-down (nothing naughty implied) – sometimes I just want to be sandpapered within an inch of turning into Anna Tartare, it feels SOOOOO good, during and after.

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  3. You experience in the Turkish bath reminds me of the hot springs in Taiwan. There are individual private rooms which you can rent by the hour and there are communal ones where everyone bears all. My South African friend always wanted me to go the communal one with her, but there is something uncomfortable about being naked among a group of woman.

    1. I agree about the…. discomfort. I got quite lucky since there was only one other woman who was just sleeping for most of it. I might go again though. Small price to pay on my dignity to scrub away all those dead cells.

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