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Bathing with strangers: what to expect at a Turkish hammam
In Turkey, one of the quickest ways to break the ice is to get naked in a room full of strangers. I'm talking, of course, about visiting the hammam. The hammam, or Turkish bath, has been around since the ancient Romans ruled much of Anatolia, and flourished during the Ottoman Empire, when baths were built in almost every city to address both public hygiene as well as provide a place for socializing.
Turks today have their own baths and they typically go to the café or çayhane (tea house) to meet up with friends. Modern spas have also edged out hammams. But while the practice of going to the hammam is on the wane, it is still possible - and downright enjoyable - to bathe at a hammam in Turkey. A hammam visit is also an incredible cultural experience, allowing you, in many cases, to see the interior of baths that have been in operation since the 16th century and an opportunity to meet other Turks in a relaxed setting.
Seeing as how going to a public bath is unusual for many travelers, I've put together a list of things to expect when going to a Turkish hammam.
Carry your own supplies. If you're planning on visiting a hammam when you go to Turkey, consider packing a waterproof toiletries bag that you don't mind getting wet as you'll carry the bag and your supplies into the hammam. Suggested toiletries include shampoo, conditioner, bath soap (preferably shower gel), and a loofah or one of those plastic shower puffs. You'll also want a "kese," an abrasive cloth that is used to scrub off all of your dead skin cells. These are almost always available for purchase at the hammam for a few lira, but you can also buy them on the local market at textile stores and in some toiletries sections of drugstores. Flip flops or other shower shoes are a must, though the hammams will have (usually wooden and uncomfortable) slippers called nalın that you can use during your visit. Bring a towel with you. A thin, cotton cover-up (peştemal) similar to a sarong, will be provided, but it is no substitute for a towel.
Don't take valuables with you. When you arrive at the hammam, you will be given a changing room where you can take off your clothes or, if you're the modest type, change into your swimsuit (preferably a two-piece). Then you will have to leave your belongings behind as you head into the steam rooms of the hammam. Most changing rooms that I encountered during my hammam excursions did not have locks, nor did they provide latches on which to hang your own padlocks. Rest assured, I never had anything stolen in Turkey. But you should be aware that theft in high tourist areas is always possible.
Go with a friend. Taking a friend with you to the hammam is by no means required. But know that for the first half an hour or so, you will sit in what is called a "warm room." There, you will be absorbing steam, scooping warm water from a perpetually running fountain, and pouring it over yourself to prepare your epidermis for scrubbing. During this time, it's great to have a friend to talk to and to share the experience with. And, when I say "friend," I mean someone of the same sex. Hammams are either divided into men's and women's sections or they will require men and women to come at separate times.
Respect others' space. No matter if you are at a hammam in Istanbul or Anatolia, you will encounter others - and don't expect them to be clothed. Most people who have been going to hammams all their lives are comfortable taking it all off at the hammam and many women that I (gingerly) observed in hammams across Turkey had no qualms about doing personal maintenance, such as shaving, while in the baths. Don't stare or balk. But also don't be surprised if the naked woman at the basin next to you tries to strike up a conversation.
Prepare to be intimate with the hammam worker. The moment of truth. When it is your turn to be splayed on the marble slab in the central room of the hammam, the hamamci (Turkish for hammam worker), clad in her hammam uniform (i.e., her underwear), will come to the warm room to fetch you. Once you are in the central room, the hamamci will proceed to scrub your whole body, front and back, with soap. When your skin is perfectly saturated, the kese scrubbing will begin. Note that a hamam attendant armed with a kese is the original microdermabrasion. The hamamci will be able to will rolls and rolls of dead skin cells from your body, the result being, of course, a healthier glow. Endure it. After this portion of the scrub-down, the hamamci will typically give you a coarse massage (unless you've paid more for the privilege), wash your hair, and give you another thorough rinsing.
Leave a tip. The price for a basic hammam visit in Istanbul and around tourist centers like Antalya runs near $40 to $50 these days. In Ankara and many other parts of Anatolia where there are more locals than tourists visiting the hammam, you can expect to pay less than $30 for a soap and kese scrub. Most hammams also offer other services, such as waxing, manicures/pedicures, and hair dyeing, for an additional cost. A good rule of thumb is to tip your hamamci approximately 20 percent of the total services.
Photo of the painting Pipe Lighter by Jean-Léon Gérôme by Flickr user Heilemann