'Tis the season for the Turkish bath! For many a Turk, there is nothing more exhilarating, relaxing and nostalgic than a Turkish bath, referred to in Turkish as a “hamam.” However, as is often the case, there are a number of steadfast customs when it comes to the Turkish bath that may escape the newcomer and hence here is an insider’s guide on how to have the ultimate “hamam” experience in Turkey.
About the architecture
The Turkish bath traditionally consists of a main circular and large marble steam room with high ceilings that is heated by a furnace with hot air flowing through conduits under the floor. The center of the main room will have an elevated circular platform called the “göbek taşı” (which translates to naval stone) on which bathers can lay to experience the heat and where the massage and scrubbing take place. The surrounding walls are lined with individual sinks, referred to in Turkish as “kurna,” with hot and cold water taps that you sit next to and fill up with water at your desired temperature and use metal or copper bowls that are called “tas” to pour the water over your head and body.
Upon entry to a Turkish bath, there are a series of changing rooms that usually contain a bed-like platform to lie on and relax. In general, you are given a key to your own changing room, and you can usually order beverages such as tea, water or as tradition dictates a “gazoz,” which is a sweet sparkling soda-like beverage.
Basic rules of the bath
There is no better time of year than now, when the weather is colder and the summer is over, to take a Turkish bath. Not only will the experience warm you to your very soul, but it is also a great opportunity to detox. The inside of the hamam is admittedly hot yet not unbearable or overwhelming such as steam baths in modern spas can sometimes be. You can easily while away an hour or two without leaving the room, and should you feel overheated, you can simply douse yourself in cold water from your personal sink. Traditionally hamams are used by both men and women, however definitely not at the same time. Most will have specific hours of the day or even different designated days for women and men respectively. All of the attendants and those who give the massage and scrubs will exclusively be of the same sex as the bathers.
What to wear
Contrary to popular belief, the bathers in a hamam are not naked. Most people will generally wear undergarments or a swimsuit, while some choose to go topless. Everyone, however, tends to wrap up in a “peştamal,” which is a classic Turkish bathing towel used to keep modest. A peştamal is a wonderful item to purchase in Turkey as they are made of natural fibers in pleasing colors and are extremely convenient and comfortable to use as towels or wraps. Other bathing accessories you will want to have are a scrub (kese) and a sponge (sünger), both of which are wonderful accessories to purchase in Turkey. There is a specific type of scrubbing material that works best for the scrub down offered in Turkish baths, and so to have the ultimate experience, you will want to heed the advice of the vendor in terms of which specific one to purchase. Waterproof slippers are also commonplace, and while many hamams will provide slippers in the dressing room, it is highly advised that you bring your own for sanitary purposes. On that note, you will also want to bring along your own soap and shampoo, although some hamams will let you purchase soaps. In either case, natural olive oil-based soap is always most recommended. You will also want to bring along a fluffy towel with which to thoroughly dry yourself off afterward.
One of the best parts of taking a Turkish bath is receiving a scrub and massage by the skilled attendants. They might not be licensed massage therapists as you might be more used to in international spas; however, they will be skilled in their own right, and you will end up feeling relaxed, cleaner and refreshed. Most hamams in Turkey also offer waxing services, especially for women, and use a lemon and sugar-based wax that is removed with fabric. If you plan to get waxed at your Turkish bath, then that should be the first service you receive and make sure not to scrub or soap up beforehand as advised.
The most popular service offered at the hamam is the scrub, which is named after the abrasive fabric used for the process, which is “kese” in Turkish. For this procedure, you are advised to spend a good 20 minutes or so in the heat of the hamam beforehand and to soak yourself in equally warm water. When it is then your turn for the service, the custom is for you to lay on the center stone as the scrubber proceeds to rub the dead skin off of your entire body by using repetitive motions that will reveal dark rolls of skin and dirt. Don’t be shocked if your suntan is scrubbed off as that is also par for the course, or if the scrubber douses you in a big bucket of water afterward. Either way, I can still guarantee that after this experience you will feel cleaner and lighter than you ever have before.
After the scrub, comes the soap massage, which is done with a sponge and soap as the masseur rubs out all of the kinks in your body as you slip and slide a bit on the heated stone. This is usually a fast and sudsy experience and differs in its fervor from professional massages. However, it is still an enjoyable luxury and some venues will also offer a shampoo massage in which they rub your head as they wash it. At the end of it all, your muscles will feel gooey and your skin replenished in what is a pure luxury that has truly stood the test of time.
A final point to note: Due to the coronavirus, most hamams have made it obligatory for guests to don face masks in waiting areas and only people within the same social bubble are admitted into the washing area. Some hamams have created appointments to ensure there is no intermingling. The special bath attendants in the hamam, the men called "tellak" and the women "natır," also wear masks and visors throughout the session.