Naked Elizabeth in Istanbul
One of the essential ways to experience a bit of Turkish culture is the hammam, or Turkish bath. Originally, hammams were built as part of mosque complexes so that people could cleanse themselves before entering the mosque. Now, these baths are enjoyed by locals and visitors. I knew I couldn’t leave Turkey without experiencing one of these for myself, so I found a recommended bath in my area (Sultanahmet is full of them since it’s the tourist centre) and headed there this afternoon.
I paid my entrance fee, requesting the traditional treatment as opposed to the cheaper self-service option. The receptionist handed me a token and pointed to the women’s entrance.
Upon entering, I was welcomed by a shout of “Lady!” The woman who had yelled it to me grabbed my token and exchanged it for a red-and-white-checkered towel and a small, golden drawstring bag. She then pointed to the stairs. I climbed up to the changing rooms, stripped off my clothing, and put it in a locker. Then I opened the gold bag to find a plain pair of black underwear. I slipped it on and wrapped up in my skimpy towel.
When I went back downstairs, I was greeted with another cry of “Lady!” and I turned to follow my attendant through a set of double doors into the room labelled “hammam.”
The first thing I noticed was how hot and humid the room was. The next thing that caught my attention was the light coming in through the pattern of holes that dotted the high, domed ceiling. The room was roughly circular, and small alcoves lined the circumference of the room. Everything in the room was made of light-colored marble, including the low, round table that took up most of the room and which already had four women on it in various stages of their baths.
I barely had time to notice all of this before my attendant yanked my towel off without warning and spread it on the marble surface, leaving me there in nothing but my panties. “Lay,” she ordered, pointing to the towel before walking away. I climbed onto the towel and lay there on my stomach. After a few minutes, I was covered in my own sweat but feeling very relaxed. The woman came back about ten minutes later, and this time, she was also wearing nothing but the standard black underwear.
She splashed lukewarm water all over me before sliding an exfoliating massage mitt onto her hand and going to town. She started with my legs, moved on to my back, and even pulled down my undies to get my bum cheeks. “Turn,” she barked, and I flipped onto my back so that she could reach my chest, stomach, and legs. “Sit!” was her next order. As she scrubbed my arms, her tone softened for a moment.
"Look," she said, and I glanced down. All over my arm were little gray rolls of dead skin and dirt. It sounds gross, but I was intrigued, and when I looked more closely, I saw the rolls all over my body from where she had scrubbed. I marveled at how dirty I must have been, and the tiniest shadow of a smile passed over her face as she watched my reaction with self-satisfaction.
She returned me to my original position and splashed warm water all over me. Next came my favorite part: All of a sudden, I was entirely enveloped in a big blob of foam. It was the softest sensation I have ever experienced, and it felt like I was being hugged by a cloud. A warm, friendly cloud.
After she thoroughly washed me, she led me into one of the side alcoves. In it was a marble basin; she sat on the ledge of it and I sat on the ground with my back to her while she washed my hair.
Finally, my bath attendant had finished with me. She handed my soggy towel back to me and pointed to a doorway. Inside was a warm, dim room that had two small pools. The water was the same temperature as the air (38C), and I relaxed in there for a half hour. When my skin felt sufficiently pruney, I headed for the shower, exchanged my wet towel for a big, soft one, and went back to the changing room to get dressed.
I left the hammam feeling fabulous and squeaky clean. It was the coolest cultural experience I’ve had on this trip, and I loved everything about it, even my militant bath attendant. Was it weird being naked in front of a whole bunch of other women? Nope. It wasn’t awkward or embarrassing. Nor was it even exciting or liberating. It just felt natural, and I really didn’t even notice that I was naked most of the time. I know not everyone would be comfortable doing this, but I’m glad I was able to enjoy the experience, and it’s definitely something I’ll do next time I’m in Turkey!