A hamam, or Turkish bath is a unique experience to Turkey. I wanted to try it on my first visit to Istanbul, but to do so, I would have to set aside my inhibitions about being seen naked by strangers. Could I do that?
I know I have a typical American hang up about public nudity. Hollywood may show a lot of bare skin, but that’s not me on that screen. Plus, at my age, I feel like I am losing both the battle of the bulge and the battle with gravity. I am not sure that I really should subject the world to seeing my body without clothes on.
That said, when I travel, I try to experience as much of the local culture as I can. So, when my husband and I first visited Istanbul in 2016, we decided that we were going to give a traditional Turkish bath (or hamam) a try, even if it meant opening ourselves up to public nudity. After all, when in Rome……………or in Byzantium………….or in this case, Istanbul…………..
For me, the added attraction was also historical curiosity. I had read that the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam, which had been built by a Sultan’s wife, had been restored and was now a luxurious Turkish bath open for visitors. But there was only one way to see the inside, and that was to use the facilities.
Originally, the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam was designed by the Ottoman Empire’s most famous and prolific architect, Mimar Sinan. He designed the great Suleyman Mosque, the beautiful Rustem Pasha Mosque as well as hundreds of other structures throughout the Ottoman Empire. The Ayasofy Hamam was also commissioned by one of the most celebrated and powerful women of the Ottoman dynasty, Hürrem Sultan, or rather, Roxelana as she was called.
As a young teenager girl Roxelana was captured and taken as a slave from her Polish homeland, eventually ending up as a concubine in the Sultan’s harem. She caught the eye of the Sultan’s mother who chose her personally as a gift for her son, Suleyman the Magnificent. Clearly, she then also caught the eye of Suleyman because Roxelana went on to become his favorite consort. Suleyman’s love for her became so deep that in 1533 he married Roxelana, breaking a 200 year old custom against marrying concubines. Roxelena was charming, and beautiful as well as intelligent, and she also became Suleyman’s partner in state affairs, acting as his chief political adviser.
Roxelana also used her position to initiate many charitable projects, including the Ayasofia Hamam which was built in 1556 to serve the religious community attending the Hagia Sofia Mosque next door. This particular location actually had a long history of baths. During the Byzantine Empire, this was also the location of the public Baths of Zeuxippus which were built here around 100 AD.
Countless number of people bathing in this spot over the course of 2000 years must have known something, and I was going to find out what that was. If I wanted to experience history first hand I would have to set aside my inhibitions and give the hamam a try.
My husband and I made evening reservations so that we would be nice and relaxed before going to bed. There are a number of packages offered, but since this would be our first time, we decided to go for just the basic traditional body scrub and wash.
The Ayasofya bath complex designed by Sinan is unique in that it is made up of two separate mirror image sections, one for men and one for women. Each section has three large domed rooms, following the ancient Roman bathing practices – a cold room or changing room, which is the entrance and reception into the complex, a warm room, and the heart of the bath, the hot room.
I don’t know what the men’s side looks like, but when I walked into the women’s section cold room, I knew this would be a very unique experience. The room was crowned by a huge dome. A fountain gently gurgled in the middle of the room, surrounded by very comfortable looking divans. The space was covered in white marble with warm colored wood accents. There was nothing cold feeling about this room, other than the fact that is was not temperature hot. Soothing music was playing in the background and a pleasant scent was wafting in the air. It felt clean and serene and peaceful. I would have been content to just stay there and relax, but that would have to wait till later. First though, I had to go through the complete body scrub down.
I was introduced to my attendant (I’ll call her Meryem) who would be taking care of me throughout. She led me to the locker area and gave me a “bikini” bottom, a pestamel, or silk wrap and slippers to change into. The “bikini” bottom did nothing to ease my apprehensions – it was barely a 10 inch rectangle with two elastic bands – a G-string has more coverage. I put it on, but I think it would have fit better on a twelve year old. At least the wrap did cover me completely, sarong style, though it was quite short. I felt only a little exposed as I walked back out into the reception hall. It helped that the facility was not busy.
Meryem was waiting for me, and by now she had also changed into a pestamel wrap. This immediately made me feel more at ease. How uncomfortable could it be if my attendant was as undresses as I was?
She took my hand and led me through the warm room into the hot room where she had me sit down in one of the alcoves next to one of the many sinks. Without any preamble, she took off my wrap and started pouring warm water over my head.
So, all of a sudden, here I was, in my birthday suit in front of a stranger, all parts exposed for the world to see. My skin had the typical end of winter whiteness so maybe I could just blend in with all the marble around me and I wouldn’t stand out. But Meryam paid no attention to my nakedness – she just kept pouring warmer and warmer water over me. Her nonchalance and the warm water had the desired effect – I began to relax and give myself over to the experience.
Once I was thoroughly rinsed, Meryam told me to sit and let the steam open up the pores in my skin. For the first time in my life since I was 5, I was sitting completely naked in a public space. But the one or two other women there were in their own little alcoves, so I didn’t feel too uncomfortable. And the heat felt really good on muscles and feet that were sore from sightseeing all day. Ok-maybe this wasn’t too bad.
Just as I was starting to get secure in this state of exposure, Meryam came and led me by the hand into the big, open middle of the room. Now I really did feel exposed. I tried not to look around because I did not want to see how many others were seeing me.
She had laid down my silk wrap on the big marble slab that covered the middle of the room, and she had me lay down on it. The marble was very warm and it did feel very good on my back. But everything else was just hanging out and hanging loose.
The next step was pretty amazing. Meryam took a large, pillow-case like fabric sack and dipped it into a bucket, and then started swinging the sack from side to side, filling the sack with air. The first time she did this, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Then she started squeezing the sack, and a bucket full of sudsy bubbles came out all over me. She did this two or three more times until my body was completely covered in soap suds. Well, at least now I was somewhat covered again.
And then the fun started. Meryam took a (new) silk mitten and started using it to scrub my body. This was not the soft flowy kind of silk you get in a scarf at the Grand Bazaar. This was a rough coarse silk that felt more like sand paper. She used it and applied a lot of force as she scrubbed my legs, my arms, my belly, and yes, my breasts. Any and all dead skin cells were coming off in that scrubbing, and I think a few live ones too. But, surprisingly, it felt really good.
Then Meryem had me turn over and she repeated the same process on my back side. More swinging of the sack, more bubbles and more vigorous scrubbing. It felt soooo good on my back, which all of a sudden got all sorts of itchy spots once she started scrubbing it. Before I knew it, she was done and my skin felt tingly all over and my muscles had turned to jello. She had done her magic. The combination of the warm marble, the hot sudsy water and the thorough rub down had totally relaxed me and washed away any inhibitions I had left.
She took me by the hand again and led me to the warm room where she rinsed me from head to toe. Then she washed my hair and massaged my scalp and neck. All remaining twinges of stress vanished with that massage. I was putty in her hands at this point. A few more rinses and then I was wrapped up in three big fluffy white Turkish towels-one sarong style, one over my shoulders and one for my hair. I was enveloped in this soft cocoon of cotton, which kept in all the wonderful warmth as Meryem led me back to one of the divans in the reception area.
I could have fallen asleep right there on the divan, but they brought me refreshments and water, and by this point, I was surprisingly quite thirsty.
As I sat there, enjoying treats of serbet (fruit juice) and Turkish Delight sweets, I reflected on the unexpected aspects of this experience. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so relaxed and contented before. I had gone in apprehensive about being naked in front of a stranger, but in the end it didn’t matter. Meryam had washed, scrubbed and wrapped me up in towels much as I had done with my children when they were babies. For a short period of time, I had given myself over to be completely taken care of by someone else, and a stranger at that – definitely a unique experience for this mother, daughter, wife – and it had felt wonderful.
I also had a better grasp of why the hamams had been such an important part of Ottoman culture. The building with its high domes and white marble was a safe retreat from the outside world. For the Ottomans, washing in a hamam was an important part of their religious preparations. But for the women of that time, going to a hamam was also a social event. It meant they could leave the confinement of the home and be with other women, catch up on gossip, and check out the up and coming young women as potential mates for their sons. I guess you could say the hamam served as the Starbucks and social media of its time.
There are many other less expensive hamams in Istanbul, but if you are going to get naked in front of a stranger and let them scrub you down to a pulp, why not do it in a beautiful and historic setting like the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam. The Ayasofia Hamam also has the added benefit of being located right in between the Hagia Sofia Museum and the Blue Mosque, so it is very convenient if you are sightseeing and/or staying in the Sultanahmet area of the city. The entrance to the women’s section faces the Blue Mosque and the entrance to the men’s section faces the Hagia Sofia.
The hamam ended up being one of my favorite activities from our two week trip to Turkey in 2016, and taking my first Turkish bath in such a historic setting will always be one of my most memorable travel experiences. When I had the opportunity to visit Istanbul again this past spring, a Turkish bath at the Ayasofya Hamam was at the top of my list, and it was just as wonderful as the first time.
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