Turkish baths or Hammams have been popular in Turkey for thousands of years, many of them surviving from the Romans. The Hammam was an important part of Ottoman culture and was used to mark important milestones in an individual’s life. The 40-day-old baby was taken to the Hammam for his ritual first bath, the bride and groom bathed there separately on their wedding day and mothers would go to spot potential wives for their sons.
The Hammam was as much a place to socialise as to get clean. It was the only place where Ottoman women could socialise outside of the closed doors of their houses and men would visit to discuss business and politics.
Hammams are still an important part of Turkish life today and it’s a great place to experience a slice of Turkish culture while getting supremely relaxed at the same time.
I visited the Rayola Hammam near Bodrum with my two boys on our recent trip to Turkey. After we had undressed in the changing room we were given a pestamel, a colourful checked cloth to wrap around our waist or chest, and led into a beautiful room with a vast domed roof inlaid with smaller glass domes to let the light in. This was the hararet, the hot room. In the middle of the room was a large octagonal slab of marble and there were marble benches and sinks running all round the edges of the walls.
As soon as we walked in, an attendant tipped a couple of bowls of water over us. This was a bit of a shock as she didn’t warn us beforehand. We were then told to lie on the marble slab. As the room was so hot and steamy, it wasn’t long before we were all sweating profusely. I could see the boys’ faces getting redder and redder. The attendants were busy massaging other people so we were left to sweat but it is normal to be left for at least 15 to 20 minutes to allow your body time to sweat out all the impurities.
I could see that the 9-year-old was struggling with the extreme heat so I suggested that he sit on one of the benches and pour a jug of cool water over himself. As soon as he did this he felt a lot better and started to relax and enjoy himself.
One by one, the three of us were taken over to a bench by an attendant where we were scrubbed from head to foot with a rough, exfoliating loofah glove (sometimes these are made out of goat hair). Our arms were lifted up so that they could scrub under our armpits and down to our fingertips, and our bodies were pushed forwards so that they could do our backs and then our legs. The scrubbing felt really good and we could feel our bodies starting to relax in the heat.
Then we had to lie back down on the marble. The attendant dipped a long cloth in a big bowl of soapy suds and produced a long cloud of bubbles which she used to cover the length of our bodies. She then massaged us all over on both sides, pressing really hard all over our backs, pulling our arms behind us and bending our legs. At one point I was seriously worried that she was going to break my bones but after she’d finished, my body was so relaxed that it felt as if it was made out of cottonwool.
We were then taken back to sit on the bench where she threw jug after jug of cool water over us. Again, she didn’t speak or warn us beforehand so it was always a shock and you were left gasping for air like a fish out of water. She washed our hair, rinsed it and replaced the wet pestamel with a dry towel.
Finally we were led out of the room like invalids to sit on a sofa in the lounge area. The three of us sat there in a trance, not wanting to move, watching bearded men with hairy chests and towels wrapped around their waists, walk in and out of the steam room. Our bodies felt all loose and floaty. The 9-year-old lay down and nearly fell asleep. As he said afterwards, “I thought it was brilliant because I felt so relaxed. It felt like my whole body was glowing.”
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