Armando’s Hamamı Experience

I’m sitting on the roof deck of my hostel in Sultanahmet, enjoying a pleasant breeze and a view of the confluence of the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. Maybe this is what it’s like to be a travel writer. Hmmm.

So Travel blogged about our first day, but he wasn’t interested in joining me in the hamamı experience (note spelling: that’s the Turkish “short i” that is pronounced like a schwa) since he said it looked very steamy in there (it was) and he’s not into very hot climates.

I went for the “traditional”, which includes a vigorous soapy rubdown but not an oil massage. On my sis-in-law’s recommendation, I went to Çemberlitas, built in the 16th century and the real deal. Although I didn’t plan it this way, I went after the evening rush was over.

The hamamı experience is definitely a sensory stimulus, and I can imagine how it might not be appropriate for, say, Iowans. (No offense if you’re reading this and from Iowa.) You start by stripping down in a changing room (there are separate men’s and women’s areas) into an oversize towel whose fabric actually reminds me of wrapping myself in an enormous dish towel, which isn’t a bad framing for what’s about to happen.

My host (facilitator? scrubdown guy?) was Ahmed, and I had watched him do another customer so I had some idea what was going on. The bathing room itself is circular and maybe 25 feet across, with of sinks with bowls around the perimeter and a large circular marble slab in the center at bench height, which was very warm (think marble on a sunny day) so that I’m not sure if it was heated from within or just holds the heat well. (It felt like a mild sauna, and indeed you’re supposed to lie on the slab and relax for a few minutes before you are treated.)

The first step was for Ahmed to don the hamamı scrubby sponge (your personal one is included in your admission) and exfoliate you on both sides, while you lie on that same marble slab where thousands of others have been exfoliated. Though it gets rinsed constantly so I’m sure it’s fine.

Next is a soapy scrub down with a substance I can best describe as bubble bath, using a large scrubbing sponge that was definitely not included in my admission so whatever. This rubdown includes a few well-placed massage strokes on the quads, hamstrings, and shoulders, at a level I would estimate at half a Moore. (The Moore is a unit of massage pain inspired by my excellent therapist Courtney Moore back home. At 1/2 Moore I make involuntary sounds; 1 Moore is the level just before I have to ask her to back off. So in that sense, I can always take 1 Moore. Thanks, I’m here all night.)

The scrubdown is rinsed away by bowlfuls of water that are, by any standard, hot. My not-insignificant experience with hot tubs says 102 or 103°F. This is followed by a trip to the rinsing room outside the main baths, for another scrubdown and rinse; by this point there was nothing left to wash off, and I’m pretty sure I could feel my epidermis growing back. After reminding me several times of his name and number (“10”) so I wouldn’t forget to tip, Ahmed indicated I should shower and change back into the dirty, sweaty clothing that had brought me to the hamamı in the first place.

Truth be told, it was so refreshing (and getting off my feet for awhile probably helped, as I must have walked 7 or 8 miles at least) that I’m inclined to do it every day. Now that I know the protocol, I can find a more locals-oriented place that is a bit less pricey (though at about $45 US, it wasn’t ridiculous, and this place is known to be more expensive).

So that was my experience. The breeze caresses newly-exposed pores as I write this up, so I hope you enjoyed reading it.