The Hamam: Heaven’s Torture Chamber

Posted on May 17, 2011


It’s a lazy Tuesday morning on Art Street and teaspoon clinks provide the treble to accompany the muffled bass of friendly conversations. This is the tranquil cafe soundtrack of my street. It’s my last day off before the workweek starts, and I’m clinging onto this morning with a white fisted grip. I just attempted to wash my face a minute ago, pulled the lever on the bathroom sink. I watched as the faucet’s sad flow slowly thinned to a drip. With the last drip, I heard the Municipality of Kadıköy whisper to me, “Face it. You’re not going anywhere. Go back to bed and write a blog or something.”

So here I am. Istanbul residents are used to this type of thing, and many of the savvy ones keep jugs of water for just such occasions.  I wasn’t accustomed to the sudden absence of water before I moved here. I grew up on a farmhouse in Georgia with our own well. Cold delicious well water straight from the tap is a glorious thing.

Generally, the water outages happen conveniently during the day and not in the mornings. Occasionally, it lasts all day and all night, which means entire city blocks must go forth unbathed. I suppose you could always go to the hamam if you really needed a shower. In fact, some hamams (Turkish baths) are cheap enough to be used this way. In fact, one of my students told me he goes to the hamam around four times a week. I’m willing to guess that it also means he baths only four times a week.

Oh, the hamam. I didn’t know what to expect the first time I entered one. Thankfully, I had an experienced friend guide me through the process. My first hamam was the 150 year old Aziziye Hamam in Kadıköy. Here is a link to their website, if you are interested: I highly recommend this place.

My wife, our German friend Sarah, our tall Californian friend Padraic, and I went together. There is a women’s and men’s section. As always seems to be the case, the men’s section is bigger and more ornate. When you enter the hamam, there is a group of men sitting in the entrance and they all have different tasks to perform. Don’t be afraid. These places are used to people who don’t speak Turkish, but with a little knowledge of the language, you can choose exactly what you want. You can choose to have just the sauna, massage, full body scrub, or everything.

You are given a key and a hamam towel, and shown to your own changing room which includes a cool bed. The first step is to go back to the sauna to sweat. Word of caution: drink a lot of water before you go! Once you have sweat away all of your sins and impurities, you go to one of the marble rooms with water basins. You feel a little silly just sitting down and dumping a bowl of water in an empty room, but it feels so good.

Continue dumping water on your head until a hairy big-bellied man motions for you to follow him.

He will sit you down on a marble slab and bathe you. You will feel like a lifeless monkey as he raises and drops your arms during this process. Then he scrubs most of the skin off you. Your whole body will feel raw for the next couple of days. Aside from a few brief moments when a hairy, soapy belly slid across my face, I really enjoyed the scrub down. I panicked a little when he sudsed up my head and began rinsing continually. With soap up my nose and his constant rinsing, I struggled to catch a few breaths of air.  I was worried he was trying to water-board me for a minute or two, but still enjoyable.

Next, on to the massage. You are laid prostrate on a large marble slab, and you do feel a little like you are about to be butchered and wrapped up in wax-paper. After he is done massaging, cracking, and slapping you, you feel a mixture of extreme relaxation and like you have just been pummeled. Another teacher who went to this hamam said the very large man decided to walk on his back! I’m glad he spared me this.

What you do after this is up to you. You can go back into the sauna or simply shower and leave. When you are ready to throw in the towel, HA, you will be escorted to your room. But before you can enter, there is what I call the towel ceremony. I man will take off your hamam towel, and wrap two fresh towels around your waist, and one around your head. Then, slap your upper-back really hard. Tradition?

What an experience. They even used to have cool, wooden, stilted, hamam shoes back in the day.

Here is a hilarious Cola Turka commercial. I’m guessing this guy is supposed to be an American tourist judging from the fact that he is wearing his cowboy hat in the hamam:

Here is a wonderful video walk through of the hamam experience from Michael Palin of all people. This is a perfect example of what happens. Watch the man from Monty Python get thrown around like a rag doll: