Hamam Visit Etiquette or A Visit to the Hamam many thanks to the author: sarıkanarya on the ThornTree Lonely Planet Forum.
Turkish baths, the traditional hamam, were an integral part of life for many hundreds of years in Turkey. Not just a place to get clean but a social meeting place too where men would discuss current affairs, do deals and generally gossip (the equivalent of golf courses of yesteryear!) and the ladies would gather to chat and gossip and eye up young girls as prospective brides for their sons. The young girls for their part would use the hamam visit as an opportunity to curry favour with the mother of any young man she had set her heart on.
If you like this article take a look at this history of hamams called The Turkish Bath Culture.
With the coming of modern housing with bathrooms, many hamams fell into disuse. Many have now disappeared whilst others lie in ruins. But all around the country, not just in tourism areas, the traditional hamam is now seeing a revival as a new generation rediscovers the pleasures and social joys of a hamam visit and many old hamams are being restored and renovated in many areas of Turkey.
Many tourists go to them and other tourists would like to but… . what do you do? What happens? The unknown mysteries sadly stop them. Read on…
Traditional hamams had two steam rooms, strictly segregated for each sex. Mixed bathing was NEVER a part of hamam life. In poorer areas the hamam may have had just one chamber which was used at different times by men and women. In tourism areas, hamams are almost always mixed and just some of them may have a ladies only session once or twice a week. It is not possible to call these traditional hamams.
Although Turkey is a modernising country it is still at its heart essentially a conservative society and the people who work in hamams are generally from more traditional working class families and regard women who bathe in mixed hamams as low-class and whores. This is not the place to get into the rights and wrongs of this attitude, this is simply a statement of how it is. No Turkish woman, not even younger more modern ones, would ever consider going to a mixed hamam, even with her husband.
It is interesting to note however that allegations of inappropriate touching almost entirely emanate from mixed sex hamams in tourism areas including those located within hotel complexes.
Touristy hamams, particularly those in Istanbul or tourism hotels are like conveyor belts and quite impersonal and can rush you through in little over an hour.
For a truly relaxing time you should allow yourself 2-2½ hours.
What do you need to bring with you?
- Swimming trunks or briefs for men and swim suit or bikini for ladies. The latter is better as the washers can reach all parts more easily without the need to adjust clothing too much.
- NOTE:Full nudity by men is not permitted in any traditional hamam.
- Shampoo and conditioner, any normal moisturising creams, and other toiletries that you’d normally use after a bath or shower at home.
- Money to pay for the hamam plus a little extra to give as tips.
- A bottle of water to drink afterwards.
- No towels are needed.
On arrival you’ll be shown to a changing cubicle and given rubber flip-flops to wear inside the chamber so you don’t slip over. Wear them! You’ll be given a large chequered cloth called a peştamal to wrap around you, either around your waist or under your armpits; whichever feels right for you. You’ll also be shown to a security locker but you shouldn’t have much with you to put in it. Don’t take excess money, important papers, jewellery, watches etc..
Then you start…
Some renovated hamams now have showers and cold plunge pools but many older ones don’t. If there are showers you may wish to go and take a quick shower first. This gives you a chance to wash your privates…in private! If there are no showers then washing of private parts should be done under the peştamal cloth and with ones back turned to the chamber.
Then look around you. The walls will be lined with marble seating interspersed with large marble sinks. You will see shallow bowls used to splash water over yourself to cool down if you start to feel too hot. This is the coolest area of the chamber, the chill down zone.
In the centre you’ll see a large round raised ‘table’ called a göbek taşı, the belly stone. This is the heart of the hamam, the hottest part.
Run some water into one of those shallow bowls and throw it over your chosen spot on the table and then lie down, just stretch out like all the others around you are doing. Etiquette for a busy room says heads to the middle feet to the edge, like a wheel, not along the edge of the table.
Now just r-e-l-a-x and drift…
If you start to feel too hot get up and throw some cool water over yourself from the sinks around the wall or even sit by one for a few minutes until you feel comfortable again. Surprisingly the hamam is not as hot as many fear, usually around 40-41C but it is high humidity. Remember you can leave the chamber and sit outside the door if you really feel uncomfortable and re-enter when ready. It isn’t a prison and it isn’t a weird endurance test!
After a period of time an attendant will come and pat you to say you are ready to be washed. If you want to steam a bit longer just say to them “daha sonra”(said as written) which means a little later and they’ll leave you to relax again. If you are ready then just follow their instructions-usually an odd word of English-but mainly hand gestures indicating sit up, turn over, etc.
The attendant will be armed with a big bucketful of soap suds and a what looks like a pillow case which they fill with suds and then squeeze all over you. Even for the most macho this is a very sensuous, luxuriant feeling and having someone do this can make you feel very self-conscious at first. After a few minutes though believe me, you just give in to the ministrations as it is so relaxing.
Once you are covered like a meringue they will start to give you a soapy massage. This is NOT a sports or therapy massage, it is basically what you could do yourself–but never do. Don’t tense up and try to fight it, just relax for the best and least painful effect. Each of us has a different threshold though so if you find it too hard then just say “yavaş”(ya-vash) which means slowly or lightly. You may enjoy this so much you want more so you can also say “biraz daha” which means a bit more!
Once this is finished they will then throw water over you to wash the suds off but the game isn’t over yet…
Next comes the scrub, the ex-foliation.
This should be firm brisk strokes but not a harsh scrubbing. The attendants often like to make a joke with foreign guests by showing you the horrific filth that comes off by showing you the kese, the scrub mitt. And yes, you will be mortified! But oh, the clean feeling of your skin afterwards is sheer bliss.
Once this is finished they will then throw water over you again to wash off all the detritus from you and the marble table too. At this point you may like to grab your shampoo and give it to them with a smile and hand gestures to show a hair wash.
Once this is done they will then wrap you up in clean fresh towels and take your arm to lead you from the chamber to a sitting area outside to recover for a few minutes. You can become so relaxed that your legs may feel a little wobbly. You may be offered tea or some water but if not then go and get the bottle you brought with you. This is when it is most needed, to rehydrate your body. If not you could feel very odd for some time later.
When you are ready you can then go and get dressed. Before leaving go and find your attendant and give then a tip for the extra washing or shampooing services they gave you.
Most hamams have a general tip box on the counter but these are shared amongst everyone. By giving some direct to ‘your’ attendant you are giving a personal thanks. Hamam workers don’t earn a big salary so tips make a big difference to them.
I don’t want to get “touched up”
As I mentioned earlier incidents of inappropriate touching almost all emanate from mixed sex tourist hamams. I have never heard of any woman suffering this in the women only sections. Men also worry about this but it is baseless too. Around Istanbul certain hamams have a reputation as being either gay friendly or attracting men looking for casual homoerotic experiences so it is better to stay away from those unless that is your intention. In ordinary neighbourhood hamams you will not face this issue.
It must be remembered that a hamam is an intimate experience. The last time you were washed so carefully you were probably about 6 years old!
As mentioned before you wash your private parts yourself, they are not, or should not, be washed or touched by ANY attendant. On women the sides, armpits, under the breasts, across the chest, side of flanks, lower belly and tops of thighs and buttocks are all washed. To do this the moving or undoing of straps will probably be necessary(hence a bikini is more practical than a one-piece). Typically, when they wash your back, the strap will be undone and then refastened before moving you to wash another area. Bikini pants will be pulled up to wash the tops of inner thighs and buttocks or rolled down a little to wash the tops of buttocks and lower back but always carefully replaced before moving to the next section. Many women choose not to wear a bikini top just the bottoms and some not even those. In a women only hamam choose which ever is comfortable for you personally not what others are wearing.
Washing of men’s thighs and buttocks are done in a similar manner by moving the swimming shorts around as required
In a respectable traditional hamam the comfort, modesty and dignity of the guest is of paramount importance to the attendant and they take great pride in doing a professional washing service.
I do not believe the stories of “oh sorry my hand slipped”! The hands of an experienced hamam attendant do NOT ‘slip’! If your instinct tells you something feels wrong, sit up, shake your head and say no, then get up and leave. In single sex, traditional, non touristy hamams this is highly unlikely to happen.
I’m too fat/old/ugly/droopy, bony.
I don’t think so! Every first timer enters the chamber with their peştamal under their chin; which is usually buried in their naval. Some folks may look up or open an eye to see who’s entered, others won’t even do that. And that will be the end of any interest they have in you. There will probably be older, fatter, uglier, droopier people than you in there but even if there isn’t it doesn’t matter.
NO ONE CARES!! Every single person in that hamam is there for one reason, to relax and get clean.
I still remember one very pretty young girl in full make up who entered a hamam I was in who looked like Alice Cooper 30 minutes later as her mascara ran down her face! Even she laughed about it.
The hamam is a great leveler of social class, beauty, size, or age. No matter how we arrive or leave whilst in the hamam chamber we all look the same-red and sweaty!
What about my kids?
Children were always taken to the hamam by their parents and visitors should feel free to do the same. Indeed the attendants usually make some fun for them with the soap suds spinning them around the table and blowing bubbles. Just like yourself, if they feel too hot, rinse them down with cool water or sit outside for a while with them until they are ready to go back in.
Alternatively a husband and wife could choose to take a hamam at different times with one as baby sitter.
Who should NOT go to the hamam?
Everyone reacts differently. Don’t listen to people who say “oh my friend with(XX illness) went and he was fine”, you may not be.
Those with high blood pressure, respiratory or cardio-vascular problems should speak to their doctor and ask their advice. Some people with these conditions may be okay others not.
Those with arthritis or rheumatic problems may benefit from a hamam but again seek the advice of your doctor first.
Women in all stages of pregnancy have traditionally gone to the hamams here but again speak to your doctor first.
People with skin conditions.
If it is a contagious condition then no don’t go. Conditions such as dermatitis and psoriasis can be improved by a hamam but the scrub should be done very, very gently so as not to cause pain or irritation. Again seek the advice of your doctor or dermatologist first.
Do not go if you have sun burn as this would be painful.
If you intend to go home with a healthy glowing tan then go to the hamam at the start of your holiday. The ex-foliation will leave your skin clean and healthy giving you a longer lasting, even coloured, tan.
Do not go if you have been out on the heavy booze the night before as you will be too dehydrated to withstand the hamam. Indeed before going to the hamam it is good practice for everyone to drink a litre or so of water to prepare the body.
I hope this dispels the unknowns and encourages every visitor to Turkey to try a hamam. A good, traditional establishment will give you the most wonderful experience of your time here and leave you wishing you had one at home.
For a humorous look at what Mark Twain (published 1869) had to say about old Constantinople in general and a Turkish bath in particular, see this chapter from his travelogue called Innocents Abroad.
Do a find on the page for Turkish bath and it will take you to Twain’s account of his experience with a hamam.