Suds, bubbles, and Bobby Darin’s “Splish, splash” are typically what come to mind when I think about taking a bath. Turkey has turned that upside down.
Turks continue a long standing tradition of bath houses that first came to prominence in the Roman Empire. Today, these bath houses feature hot rooms of marble where men and women wash themselves and are washed by attendants. Today’s baths mostly come from Turkey’s Islamic Seljuk and Ottoman Empires where an emphasis on purity and cleanliness made hamams extremely attractive.
Last week, three friends and I visited one of Turkey’s traditional hamams (bath houses). The nearly eight-hundred year-old Seljuk hamam in Kayseri’s city center was simple, but it certainly didn’t miss any services of a traditional Turkish Hamam. Most of its visitors are not tourists but instead the working men of one of Turkey’s most traditional cities. There is a woman’s side of the hamam as well, but I can’t say much about that. Our hamam was separated into three different areas: a drying and dressing room, a wash room, and a sauna.
Stone steps descending from the sidewalk led us to the entrance and into the drying and dressing area. Furnished in wood, it reminded me of a cedar closet. Each of us were given a key to one of the 20 or so dressing booths lining the room. Meanwhile, men just out of the bathing area sat in plush chairs reading the news or watching Turkish TV while drying off, some of whom who were also enjoying a full rub down at the chair. After dropping everything but a thin plaid towel provided to us by the hamam, I was ready for the cleaning of my life.
After entering the main bath room, the first thing I noticed was the room’s humidity. It wasn’t necessarily hot, but sweat immediately starting building on contact with the air. Orhan, my friend and “hamam guide” laughed at my reaction to it and said, “Today, for the first time, you will be really clean!”
The room we were in was furnished with marble floors and benches along the wall, and a mini-waterway system guided runoff splash water down the bath’s drains. The room had four smaller rooms in each corner (one being a sauna) and in between the corner rooms were spigots and sinks running along the wall with metal pans for individual bathing. On a busy day, the benches would be full of men sitting, chatting, and then pouring warm to hot water over themselves. The four of us (one Turk, two English teachers, and one Chinese teacher) sat in the center slab of the room admiring the historical nature of the building, while also frankly, sweating like pigs.
After about 15 minutes, Orhan suggested it was time “to get very hot” in the sauna. The sauna was the hottest room I’ve been in even for a sauna. Thankfully it was extremely dry. Inside, we met Ali, a tall Turkish man who was a bit off according to Orhan. While sitting down, Ali got up and started haphazardly flicking the sprinkling hose left and right. I jumped when the “cold” water hit us sitting on the bench and said, “Hey, stop.” Ali responded, “I’m making steam. I’m making steam.” We had no problem with the steam, but asked if he could make it where no one was sitting. The sauna was too much for me, so I left. From the outside looking in, I watched Ali playing with the hose from the door window. When my friends came out before Ali, Jim the American teacher said that Ali mentioned,Turkey and America are friends, “but Turkey is stronger.”
After the sauna, we were finally ready to be cleaned according to Orhan. Two men standing by the entrance were rubbing and soaping men lying down
on marble benches on the side of the walls. The first step was the kese. The kese is basically a large, rough edged glove, reminiscent of the gloves I’ve used to groom my dog. The burly and bald bath attendent (also known as a tellak) rubbed it all over my skin. The glove pulled away at all the dust and dead skin on my body and the remnants of which were left looking like wet rolled up pieces of paper. After the process, he poured water over me using a small silver bowl filled with lukewarm water. My skin felt raw, but also extremely clean. But the experience wasn’t over as the attendant asked me, “Do you want soap massage?”
Saying yes, I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever had such a thorough wash down since I was an infant. The “massage” got a bit brutal especially towards the end when he worked on my back. The attendant was excited to talk to an American in Turkish, and kept asking how the country was. I responded that Turkey is wonderful, the peopler are great, and the food is tip top. I would often find myself saying, Turkey is çok guzel (very beautiful). He would laugh and as he pressed his hands hard into my back, he shouted, “Çok guzel!” After a final rinse, I was able to head over to another side of the hamam where I could gently rinse with my own little bowl of warm water.
After we all finished with the attendants, we headed out of the hamam and took a seat in the chairs. We were given lemonade and soda while we rested and just let our bodies rest after the thorough cleaning and pounding.
For those few hours, it was interesting to have such a personal and thorough cleaning. Spas are not usually my thing, and I can’t say I’d go back to hamam on a regular basis. But, when you’ve been travelling and you just want to get completely clean and relaxed, it’s a great start. Some people say you can feel like the Sultan, and I can see why. From the minute you enter until the minute you leave, the hamam is all about your needs, nothing else.
As for the price of this full service, the bath will run you about 35 Turkish Lira or $23.00 US Dollars.