Anyone who’s been to a relatively nice spa or stayed at a fancy hotel has probably heard the term hammam. It’s thrown around fairly liberally, an exotic word to describe what usually turns out to be a steam room. But an actual hammam, known as a Turkish bath in English, is an altogether different beast.
On a trip to Istanbul, I had the pleasure—mixed with a tiny bit of pain—of experiencing the real deal at Kiliç Ali Paşa Hamami, built in 1580 by famed Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan.
What was it like? Let’s just say, first off: Don’t go to a hammam if you’re not comfortable with your naked body. Or other women seeing or touching it. Or, for that matter, seeing others totally nude—and I’m not just talking boobs. Once you’re okay with that little detail, you realize that nudity is the great equalizer and really not that big of a deal—and you can then get on with the actual experience, which is…intense.
Entering the impressive domed structure through a wooden door, I am immediately greeted by a woman who gives me a mint-scented towel for my hands and white cloth sleeves to slip over my espadrilles. So that’s how they keep the marble floors so pristine, I think. I sit and take in my grand surroundings—pinkish-red brick arches, a giant burbling fountain, and intricate moulding—sipping a traditional pulpy-sweet strawberry sherbet drink, çilek şerbeti.
This is a ritual that goes back to the Ottoman period, when no one in Istanbul had their own bathtub. Hammams were built as part of mosque complexes as a source of revenue, as well as to serve a need: cleanliness. Later when home bathing facilities were common, it morphed into a more social ritual. Groups of women or men would visit the hammam together, indulging in a deep clean and lazing around over tea and a chat afterward.
One by one, the attendant unceremoniously removes our towels, rewrapping them around our waists, as if to put an end to any potential body shame.
Equipped with a red and white Turkish towel and sandals, I head upstairs to the changing areas around the perimeter of the dome and strip down. Then, downstairs, I follow two similarly clad women into a small white marble room, feeling a blast of heat on my face and the wetness of humidity. One by one, the attendant unceremoniously removes our towels, rewrapping them around our waists, as if to put an end to any potential body shame. She motions for me to sit. I am the last to be initiated, baptized if you will, when she dumps hammered silver bowlfuls of water over my head and body. My mind flashes to photos I’ve seen of my first bath as a baby, in the sink.
Thoroughly drenched, we are led through a door to the main event: A large room with a giant white dome lined with rows of star and hexagon cutouts and small clusters of circular portholes, each letting in a distinct beam of light.
Beneath the dome is a vast heated hexagonal marble slab known as the göbektaşı, surrounded by white and gray marble benches and sinks.
It was on that slab I was instructed to splay myself, joining two other women and a Zenned-out child. I sat and slid back, gingerly lowering my body onto the hot stone. As my skin adjusted to the heat I tried consciously to slow my breathing and relax my mind, taking breaks to sip from the cup of cool water placed beside me.
As I begin to sweat—eliminating toxins, I think, satisfied—I sneak peeks at the action in the periphery, where women of all shapes and sizes are being washed.
As I begin to sweat—eliminating toxins, I think, satisfied—I sneak peeks at the action in the periphery, where women of all shapes and sizes are being washed. After 20 minutes I was summoned to a just-squeegeed marble bench, AKA kurna.
Özlem, my jovial natır (hammam-speak for spa attendant, most of whom learned this trade from their grandmas)—greets me smiling and asks, “Name is?” She wears a black bra top, gray sarong, and white Crocs, which will drip with soapy water before long. She removes the towel from my waist before I sit, but I opt to keep on my lacy thong.
As she runs the kese up and down the length of my back and in between each of my toes, I feel like a cat being scratched in just the right spot.
Özlem first douses me—again—with more bowls of water, over my head, neck, shoulders, and back, before gently scrubbing my face with a small exfoliating cloth, her plump cheeks just inches from mine. Next she dons a gray mitt called a kese, which she deploys on every inch of my skin.
As she runs the kese up and down the length of my back and in between each of my toes, I feel like a cat being scratched in just the right spot, until a scabbed-over mosquito bite on my shin breaks open. (She tenderly rinses the blood.) Then, surprise: I am inundated again, rinsing off skin that is now polished and primed.
Next Özlem dips a white cloth—like a long pillowcase—into a bucket of suds from pure olive oil soap, and swings it back and forth gently as it magically expands, bursting with bubbles. Like a chef dispensing icing or custard from a pastry bag, she squeezes from the top down, releasing fragrant lemony olive–smelling foam onto my torso.
After at least a dozen rounds, I am fully immersed in a frothy cloud, whose white fluff cascades down my legs and into a creeping puddle that drips slowly from one level of marble to the next.
I have no choice but to relinquish any lingering tension as I breathe in the bright scent.
Soaping up her hands with a solid bar, Özlem then scrubs and massages me, giving special attention to knots in my shoulders and neck, her hands traveling up and down my spine with long, firm movements. Nothing is out of reach as she works methodically, from my uppermost thigh to the arches of my feet and fingers.
I have no choice but to relinquish any lingering tension as I breathe in the bright scent—but the spell is broken, just a bit, when I again gasp for air between bowlfuls of water, dumped onto my crown in uncertain intervals.
Next Özlem lathers up my hair with equal vigor, then conditions it. After a final (!) rinse, this time with icy water, she wraps me up, walks me into the next room, dries me off, cocoons my body and hair in fresh, dry towels, and sends me off to drink Turkish tea by the fountain. The only disappointment of the whole experience: I didn’t have a friend there to kick back and gossip with.
Looking for other jet-setting wellness adventures? This Ayurvedic spa in India may have one of the most extreme cleanses on earth. Or check out this Bali-to-Mexico fitness getaway, and the life-changing lessons that came with it.