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  • Bathing is especially important to me – I’m an addict. I do it at least three, sometimes four, times a day. Not because I require the bath, but because I love the sensation of bathing.

    So, I couldn’t very well pass up the experience of a Turkish bath (hamam), now could I? There are about 20 left in the city. Some of them, like the one I went to, date back to the 16th century, but at one time there were literally hundreds of them.

    The old ones have very similar architectural designs as both the mosques and the orthodox churches of the city and, considering that many of them are close to mosques because there is a Muslim precept to be clean before you pray, do not let this fool you. The institution of the baths predate both Christianity and Islam – they are Greco-Roman. And this is important to keep in mind when I go through describing the experience.

    All baths follow a basic layout. If the bath has male and female sections, this form is just repeated for each sex (as far as I know, there is only one ‘co-ed’ bath in Istanbul and, frankly, I would not be happy attending one), but what is clear is that the structure establishes the baths as public, civic space.

    The first domed room you enter is a nice atrium. Built into the surrounding walls are small, glass fronted cubicles – resting / changing rooms, and in the middle is a fountain (in winter an open fire) and low tables and chairs for socializing.

    The second room is rectangular, and marble-lined. This is the cooling off room where you can doze after the bath.

    The third room is another huge domed room – the bath itself. It has a raised central stone platform called a ‘navel stone’ and there are washing alcoves around the outside walls of the bath where you bathe. There is a small room built into the side of one wall called the ‘hot room’, a very intense heat and steam room that is over 100 F. A few of the washing stations are sort of screened off by shoulder-height marble walls, so you could get some privacy if you really needed it, but I never saw anyone use them.

    My experience started when I was shown to cubicle number 4 and told to take off ‘everything’. Everything? Yes, everything. The room itself locks, has a nice little daybed to snooze on, a mirror and a hairdryer. Once stripped, there is a big, thick cotton sheet to wrap in and some very awkward clogs to wear (nalin). The clogs are very much like wooden Japanese Zori. Supposedly they are so you don’t slip on the wet marble floor, but personally, I think they are more about keeping fungal infections to a minimum in a place that could be such a vector for it.

    My bath attendant, or tellak, was a very rotund, middle-aged motherly lady. My gut says that she wasn’t a Turkish Muslim, but a Jew. She had a rather different structure to her face than most Turkish women. I’m not sure why I thought she wasn’t a Muslim Turk – call it a gut thing, but I think she recognized the Sephardic Jewess in me. For one thing, she kept beaming at me almost manically, and secondly, she was almost embarrassingly motherly with me. Yes. I do think we sensed each other’s blood. How odd, because I don’t often dwell on my racial background but my father comes from a very old Sephardic Spanish family that fled the inquisition in the 15th Century and ended up in England.

    Later, of course, I found out that it was tradition for tellaks NOT to be Muslims, and that many of the older Hamams in Istanbul also house Mikvahs (Jewish ritual baths that must be in contact with ground-water). So, I’m pretty sure my gut was right.

    This mother hen led me through the cooling room and into the main bath room. It was enormous, with a great, high central dome, pierced with holes for light. Around the central raised platform, against the walls, were the basins and she pulled me towards one overflowing with water. Tugging my wrap off in a very no-nonsense way, she sat me down on the raised marble ledge by the basin, and proceeded to dump huge quantities of scalding water all over me until I felt like a cross between a drowned rat and a steamed bun.

    “Sit. 20 minutes,” she said (that was pretty much the entirety of her English) and waddled off.

    I was alone for a while in this huge, ancient chamber. So I stretched my legs out and let the overflowing basin trickle through my toes, and leaned back against the marble wall.

    What struck me powerfully is how utterly alien it felt to be naked in such a huge and clearly civic space. We’re used to being naked in our own houses. Bathrooms, bedrooms – small areas. Some of us are even fine being naked in a gymn changing room, but for the most part, this is just a transitional state between getting clean and putting on your clothes. I’ve also been to nude beaches, which serve to remind that we are not separate from nature, but animals, and part of it.

    This was entirely different. I sat naked, sweating and gazed up at the light filtering through the dome. What I thought was…this is about the civic body: the human as citizen. Beneath the clothes and the cars and the symbols of status, this is about the intellect of man and the flesh that houses it. That they are not separate things, despite what Judeo-Christianity or Islam says. These baths and this experience is older than those things. If nude beaches are about reminding us that we are part of nature, Turkish baths remind us that we have conquered it too. That we are consensual members of a society with many unstated pacts. This is about the Civic Body.

    And it would be easy to interpret what I am saying as a denial of the body and the concrete, but that’s not what I’m trying to express. We are organisms with drives and instincts and organic functions. But we are also more than that because we are self-directed. We are more than just animals. We decide when to heed the call of those drives and instincts and when to ignore them. And, of course, both aspects are possible at the bathhouse.

    So there, stark naked in that ancient place, I had a bit of an epiphany and a sense of what it must have been like to be an Athenian man, who both indulged in his love of beautiful bodies and exercised his responsibilities as a citizen. It occurred to me, that one way or another, we have become very fucked up. We have lost the ability to see both those aspects of ourselves as public and proper. (I’m not going to make excuses for the way they treated women, or all the slaves they kept – that’s another post).

    All great moments of enlightenment must come to an end. And for me they ended when a bevy of extremely generously built Russian girls came in and demanded to know why the hot room wasn’t hot. I guess, to them, I looked like a local.

    My adoptive mother waddled back in and indicated that I should lie down on the central raised area. I did, and watched her strip down to nothing and wash meticulously, before coming over to me brandishing the very rough, cruel mit. For fifteen minutes she rubbed every inch (yes, absolutely every inch) of my outer body raw. I’ve never had my nipples scrubbed before and, let me tell you, it’s an interesting experience. When she finally got me to sit up, I could see that all along my skin there were tiny grey rolls of dead skin cells. She seemed thrilled. I was vaguely nauseated. She walked me over to the basin and proceeded to rinse me clean of them with some seriously vigorous rubbing.

    Back to the central slab, it was massage time. I’ve had a lot of different kinds of massage: Thai, Swedish, Indian. None every involved a thorough breast examination before. Seriously. I think that Turkish massage should be mandatory and that the masseuses should have training in cancer detection because if I had a lump in my breast, I can assure you, that woman knew about it. She also knew if I had anything untoward on my buttocks too. Basically, this woman knew everything about me by the time it was over. I can’t say it was as good as Thai massage for making you feel truly worked-over, but it was by far the most thorough I’ve ever had. Plus, she let me know she had finished by slapping my ass.

    A strange aside to this is that the woman who attended me had the softest skin I’ve ever felt. It was literally like butter. She sat snugged up against me as she rubbed me, and I could feel her thighs. Wow. Just WOW. Pudgy or not, I bet her husband LOVES her skin.

    Back to the basin after the massage with soapy oil, she sluiced me down again and got me to sit between her legs on the marble floor while she washed my hair, which involved washing all of me, all over again.

    By this time, I had thrown inhibition to the wind and sat in a lotus position with my eyes closed being cleansed within an inch of my life. Fuck it. This was nice.

    A final rinsing and I was led into the cooling room. A big fluffy terry town got wrapped around my body, and I was festooned with another, wrapped turban style for my head, and left to lie on the marginally cooler dry marble to cool off.

    Ten minutes later, she came over with a glass of Turkish tea and supervised me while I drank it. ALL OF IT, said the expression on her face. It was really very funny. Finally, she led me by the hand back to my little cubicle and said ‘Sleep’.

    Well, there was no chance of that, after the tea, so I dried off, and got dressed and tipped her something ridiculous because – after all – she had made what could have been a kind of alienating, frightening ordeal to a foreigner such a brilliant new experience.

    If you come to Istanbul, go to one of the baths. Just dump all your fears at the door and enjoy it. You have nothing to loose but your dead skin cells and a few useless inhibitions.
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