I recall from my childhood, numerous - shall we call them - discussions about whether a particular item, my bedroom, the dishes, but usually my face, were "clean". Not, you understand, that I am a "dirty" person; it's just that when I was a child I did not share the same exacting standards as my mother and I was usually eager to rush things in order to do something that interested me more.
Having now experienced my first Turkish bath, I can safely say "Mother, you don't know what clean is!" The amount of accumulated muck and grime that a tiny Turkish lady managed to scrape off my body would have surprised even my mother. It certainly surprised me.
The significance of the Turkish bath, or "hamam" as it is known, is twofold in Turkey. Firstly, Islam stresses the importance of cleanliness and this culminates in the ritual bathing on Friday before evening prayers. Secondly, in the past very few Turkish homes had bathrooms and so men and women would go to the hamam to bathe. Even today even a small town will have at least one hamam and in larger towns there are probably several competing for business. Sadly some have not been able to compete and prices in others have become quite high. This has meant that women often wash themselves while the men are more likely to have "the works".
The Turkish bath is a mixture of the Roman tradition along with these Moslem requirements although the vast majority of hamams were built during the Ottoman period.
There is a marked difference between a hamam in a tourist resort and one in a more traditional town. The ones in tourist resorts are usually less authentic and a bit more "glitzy"; furthermore your experience will be quite different too. Firstly, mixed bathing only happens in hamams in tourist resorts. Outside of the tourist areas a hamam either has two entrances and two sets of facilities for men and women to bathe separately, or a timetable operates so men may bathe, for example between 6.30 a.m. and 10.00a.m and between 6.00p.m. until midnight with the hamam being open to women in between those two sessions.
Secondly, a Turkish woman would never permit a man to wash her in the hamam but this often happens in the tourist resorts. Frankly, given the treatment I received at a traditional hamam, I am not surprised! I would say that any woman agreeing to let a man wash her in a hamam is missing out on a great experience because it simply would not be appropriate for a man to wash you in the same way a woman would. It was an intensely physical experience and one that I am sure could not be done in the same way by a man. In a traditional hamam only male staff would, similarly, wash male bathers.
I visited the Mustafa Bey hamam in Amasya in northern Turkey; it's quite a traditional town but one which gets a small handful of tourists (who come to see the Pontic tombs built into the cliffs) and makes visitors feel quite at home. In the hamam, however, the staff seem to be less used to foreign visitors but this only enhanced the experience for me. None of the staff spoke English so we all had to do a lot of miming along with the ten or so Turkish words I had learned.
The hamam is listed by Lonely Planet as one of the top ten in Turkey. From the outside it looks like any other traditional building but it is instantly recognizable from above (you get a good view from the Pontic tombs) by the cute little domes.
You enter from street level and go first through a doorway, then through a curtain and into the changing area - the "camekan". Around the outside of this circular space there were little changing booths; inside each is a little banquette, some shelves and some pegs. The changing attendant gives you a "pestemal" - a piece of checked cotton fabric which you wrap round yourself once you have undressed. This of course, begs the question - to be naked or not?
When entering the changing room, I noticed a couple of women coming back after bathing who had been naked in the baths so I took my cue from them. However, the practice varies from place to place and there are no hard and fast rules; what is acceptable in one hamam may not be the done thing at another hamam in the same town. If you are unsure, you could leave on some underwear or wear a bikini under the pestemal and remove them if you think it appropriate later on. Be aware, though, that if you go without, the pestemal will come off later when you get scrubbed (unless you wash yourself). I am informed by my partner that men do NOT remove their pestemal under any cirmcumstances.
Having donned my pestemal and the obligatory flip flops (there is a pair in each cubicle) and then having explained that I had not brought my own shampoo, towel and soap (these can be bought at the hamam but you may prefer your own brands) I was led by one of the washing attendants into the warm room. The walls were lined with pale marble and a low shelf of marble went all the way around the room. At intervals along the wall were taps with marble basins underneath. The attendant instructed me to sit at one of them and she then poured water over me from a plastic basin. She left my soap and "kese" (more on that to come) beside me and wandered off for a few minutes, indicating that I may lie down on the "goebektas" if I wished; the goebektas is a low marble platform and is the sort of thing you might think of with Turkish baths - a place to recline while periodically dousing oneself with water. You can wash here and this is where you would do it if you were washing yourself. However, you should be careful not to splash other bathers, especially on a Friday. If a Moslem is interrupted or splashed during a ritual bath then he or she would have to start their wash over again.
This is the most relaxing part of the Turkish bath experience so you should make the most of the time in this section; the atmosphere is calm and restful and high up above you tiny slivers of light come in through tiny coloured windows in the little domes. For the wonderful atmosphere you really ought to experience a traditional hamam rather than a modern one.
The attendant came back and pointed to the sauna; this bit was not really necessary since the "hararet" (hot room) was hot enough to open the pores as it was, but I do enjoy a sauna and so I went in. The sauna was not of the Scandinavian type - all wood and hot coals; it is actually more of a "steam room" but the principle is much the same (and the attendant called it a sauna). Instead of sitting on wooden benches, you sat on great slabs of marble and the steam came in slowly from vents around the room.
Having had enough, I ventured back into the hararet to seek the attendant. She wasn't around and I really wanted to rinse my face so I started to open the packet of soap; suddenly the attendant appeared from nowhere, took the soap off me and pretended to smack my hand. This shows that, if you don't know the etiquette, you really should put yourself in the experienced hands of a professional for your first visit; it may save you from embarrassment or save an unfortunate Turkish lady from starting her bath again! Apparently I was sitting in the wrong place, the central platform being for washing, the outer basins just for dousing. Turkish bath etiquette is simple once learned but a minefield for the rookie bather.
Next I was shown into a slightly cooler area at the end of the hararet; this room had more light coming from the larger dome above it. Here the attendant motioned for me to climb on a high table - a bit like a physiotherapist's table. The table was covered in what looked like a piece of plastic that might be used for tablecloths in a café; it certainly didn't make it easy to climb onto the table, I'd just managed to get on and swing my legs up when it looked like I'd built up too much momentum and nearly went over the other side! I managed to stay on, though, and my sturdy little attendant commenced the wash. This involved using a "kese" which is a thin but coarse mitt that the attendant dragged across my body, holding the flesh taut to really do some hard work. The result is lots of little worm like rolls of dirt, grease and grime that lie on your skin until the job is done. To do my back, I had to lie on my stomach and the attendant climbed onto the table, positioned herself on her knees and hooked her feet over the sides of the table while she made industrial work out of pulling the kese over my skin. This tiny woman with her puny frame put everything she had into making sure every last grain of muck was removed from my body - I think my mother must have phoned her in advance - it felt personal!
While she did not clean what I will coyly call my "intimate areas", she did then give me a basin of warm water an made a vague gesture that I was do this area myself and that she would be back in a moment. She returned with what looked like a big holey blue dishcloth that turned out to be beautifully soft. She worked up a fantastically rich lather with the soap and the cloth and gently washed me, removing the "dirt worms" - they all floated off into a drain, making me feel very ashamed. I must be such a dirty person, how could one person carry all that dirt, how much lighter would I be without it?
My body washed, the attendant washed my hair, giving me an invigorating head massage before rinsing off the shampoo and I was done. I declined the offer of a massage, feeling that I was already refreshed and relaxed yet somehow rather energized. I have read, however, that if you are going to have a massage at a hammam, this is the kind of place to do it since the service offered at tourist resort is cursory to say the least.
The attendant led me back to the changing area and I found three towels in my cubicle; this is traditional - one for your head, one for your shoulders and one for your lower half. At this point I was offered tea that you drink in the central seating area while you cool down. I accepted the offer and, although we could not communicate verbally, I was able to sit with another bather and the changing attendants and convey to them how much I had enjoyed the experience.
You pay on leaving and the prices are, fortunately, clearly marked at the cash desk. The damage? Seven Euro for my full wash which included the cost of the shampoo, the soap and the kese; I was also given the remaining soap and the kese (which I brought home as a souvenir). Not bad for a truly invigorating and thrilling experience, not to mention the feeling of satisfaction derived from knowing my mother was nowhere near the mark with her definition of clean!
My face glowed and felt so soft and fresh and I really did fell energized and there was a spring in my step in spite of the ordeal I'd been through at the hands of Turkey's answer to Prince Naseem; this tiny yet frighteningly strong lady had single-handedly done what my mother had been hoping for years in under two hours. If this is what clean means I'll certainly be doing it again!
Forget your mixed bathing and modern hamams; traditional and authentic is the way to go. Bathing can be a social experience and, even if you cannot speak the language, there is much to be gained and enjoyed by using a single sex hamam, especially for women since conservative Turkish women might get few opportunities to meet foreign women and this gives them the freedom to communicate without the watchful eye of brothers or father. Above all, people will be genuinely impressed and delighted that you have made the effort to join in with a venerable and ancient tradition.
Mustafa Bey hamam is in the heart of Amasya and is signposted from all parts of town.
Richard - I'm sure you understand why this review doesn't come with photographs
Ths review appears elsewhere under the author name "fizzytom"