A Hammam How-To: Or, Get Ready to Relax


Today I have been tired and kind of sleepy.  For some reason, today I’ve also wished that I could be transported to a genuine hammam.  It’s been that kind of day.

“Turkish bath” conjures up all sorts of images, not all pleasant.  But the very word hammam instantly lulls me — maybe it’s the ah sounds and the mmm sounds.  I mean, put your lips together and say “mmm” and feel the vibrations.  It’s like humming.  In fact, if I think about it, maybe I can just use the word hammam as a mantra.

I’d read about hammams, but never had the opportunity to try out out.  Not until I first visited Istanbul in 2005.  In the few short days I was there, I knew that I wanted to try one out.  I mentioned this to a friend who was also there, and he talked to some Turkish friends of his.  Thus my initiation into the joys of the hammam is forever tied to Istanbul.  The guys made the appointment for me, somewhere in the Beyoglou neighborhood (where Taksim Square is).  I don’t remember the name of it, if I ever knew it. But oh, what a lovely experience.

First of all, it wasn’t a tourist place.  This is where ordinary residents of the city went.  I remember walking in and no one speaking English.  I just sort of followed where I was led.  Gestures talked rather than words.  

My second experience was in Amman, Jordan, last year.  By the time I landed there, I’d read a lot and found the Ali-Pasha Turkish Bath was where I wanted to go.  The hotel concierge made the arrangements.  This time I took a taxi, clutching in my hand the addresses (in Arabic) for the hammam and for the hotel, for the taxi driver.  Sadly, the taxi driver was almost as lost as I was.  He ended up dropping me off in the area near the hammam, and I found it pretty soon.  The sign wasn’t noticeable, and the entrance was a bit off the street.  

Most recently, I was in Istanbul again, and once more made sure that I had hammam time.  The hotel concierge made the reservations for late one night, following a visit to the Whirling Dervishes.  

The hammam experience is a ritual for many people.  Again, I was fortunate to go to non-touristy places, places where “real” people go.  

The whole “Turkish bath” thing became popular in the West during the Victorian era as a way of cleansing and relaxing.  Though part of Islamic culture, the hammam is clearly related to ancient Greek and Roman bathing practices.  Some of the most famous hammams in Turkey and Jordan date to the 14th and 15th centuries.  Often the hammams were built as part of a mosque complex.  The architecture can be a clue to this since many hammams have domes similar to mosques.  

Typically when you enter a hammam, expect three interconnected rooms:  the hot room, a room that is steamy from hot water running under and around a raised, round marble structure; a warm room; and a cool room.  There will also be showers and a steam room and maybe a sauna as well as a hot pool.  You’ll be led between areas.  There will often be a domed ceiling with small round windows that let light in. The room may well be steamy and darkened, so that the light is diffused and soft.  

I’ve read that such a dome is often in the cool room, but the three hammams I’ve been to had the dome with the hot room.  There I’d lie, basically naked, on a very warm marble stone (sometimes called a tummy stone) at the center of the room.  Here I was allowed to lie long enough to work up a complete sweat.  Then came a scrub massage.  Indeed, at the first hammam I went to this was more akin to being scrubbed with a Brillo pad.  Basically, you’re exfoliated.  And cleaned.  Shallow bowls of hot water — many of them– are poured over you.  Just remember to get into the rhythm of the person pouring the water, so that you don’t breathe in just as another bowlful is sluiced over your head.  

From there, I usually was led to showers in the warm room to rinse off and shampoo.  Then it was time to soak in the pool, often with some cool refreshment, maybe a citrusy drink.  In Amman, at the Ali Pasha hammam, I then went into the steam room, which was tiled and slippery and scared me.  I could just see myself slipping and crashing onto the tiles in the darkened annex.  Rubber-soled flip-flops helped, but I still made sure to move slowly and try to hold on to something that generally was too slick for a firm grasp.  

Back to the showers, to the warm room.  Then the pool again.  Then the sauna.  Then the showers.  Then a massage, with me on a warm marble table.  

The Ali Pasha hammam had all of these things going on in areas of the same domed room.  In Istanbul, though, there were separate rooms, though these were connected. 

After the massage, each time I showered and dressed and relaxed more in a small room where I had tea.  The hot tea and the cool room were perfect follow-ups to the steam and hot marble.  In Istanbul, though, this year, there wasn’t any tea at the end because I was there so late.

In most hammams, men and women do not bathe together.  In fact, there are often separate hours for men and for women.  In the hammam I went to this year, though, there were two separate parts of the hammam, one for men and one for women.

All I know is that when I’m done, I’m incredibly relaxed.  I’m warm, glowing, and feel as though I have no bones.  No knots in my shoulders or under my shoulder blades can survive a true hammam experience.  At various points I fall asleep, only to be awakened by someone turning me over or scrubbing or sluicing me with water.  

By the time I get back to my hotel room after a couple of hours at a hammam, I’m pretty much done.  At that point, all I really want to do is slip into my pjs and crawl between crisp clean sheets and go to sleep.

For some reason, I have no photographs of the hammams I’ve been to.  That’s probably because I was fully occupied and there was no room to carry a camera.  In addition, the steam probably wouldn’t be too great with most cameras.

Just to give you a sense of what a hammam is like, let me link you to the Cemberlitas Hammam in Istanbul, which is the hammam I used in July.  This is a historic hammam dating to 1584.  Look here: http://www.cemberlitashamami.com

You can see what different areas look like.  The photo I included above is from this website, since I didn’t have any photos that I took.

In 2005 when I was done with the hammam and met my friends at a bar around the corner, I wanted a glass of wine.  I also announced that I wanted to live there.  In a hammam.

It’s not for everyone, I know.  If you’re shy, wear a swimsuit.  You don’t have to strip.  Modesty is obviously not something that most women there worry about.  There’s nothing sexual about the nudity.  Not at all.  In fact, no one seems to notice.  The women are chatting and visiting.  Apparently a lot of times friends go together for their version of what I call “Lady Day.”  It’s a weekly ritual for a lot of people.  

I don’t have any idea what it’s like for men, obviously.  You’d have to ask my friend who went to Istanbul with me this year; I made him try it.  When we left, he just shook his head and mumbled something.  

As for me, I’m hooked.  I just wish there were a hammam — an authentic one — somewhere near here.  

Oh well.  There isn’t.  What I’ll do instead tonight, as soon as I post this, is draw a very hot bath in my claw-foot bathtub.  I’ll light a couple of candles.  Put on some music.  Pour a glass of wine.  And soak.

It’s not a hammam, true.  But I can close my eyes and pretend, right?

Maybe I’ll wait until it’s dark.  The ambience, you know?





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