What is a Turkish Bath?
A Turkish bath is called a hamam. It usually includes massage and a tea bar. Some hamams in Istanbul are over 250 years old and some upscale hotels there also offer a similar experience.
The first step in experiencing a traditional Turkish bath is getting ready in the camekan, or changing room. You undress in a private booth where you can lock up your street clothing and change into a pestemal and terlik, which are a fringed towel wrap and a pair of slippers. Many people bring the rest of what they need such as a drying towel, shampoo and soap because some hamams don't supply these items and the ones that do may charge a high price for them.
You usually can choose whether you'd like to take a bath by yourself or have a hamam attendant scrub your skin with a coarse mitt. The hair treatment usually includes a scalp massage with a shampoo. The bathing room is a steam bath with separate washing areas around a heated stone table called a goebektas that is used for massage after the steam bath.
After the steam bath and massage, hamam patrons go to a cooling room with cooler showers. Tea is usually available to drink. A visit to a Turkish bath may take two hours or even more.
The idea behind the Turkish bath is to sweat much like one does in a sauna, but with the added elements of water, cleansing and massage. The hamam has been part of the Turkish culture for hundreds of years and connects with the Muslim appreciation for water and for cleanliness. This treatment is for people of all ages and social classes.
In Turkey, the gelin hamam, or bride's bath, is a big part of Turkish culture even today. The bridal Turkish bath day often includes live music and food. Traditionally, unmarried women throw coins into the hamam pool and make a wish that they will marry the man they hope to wed. Some of the five star hotels in Istanbul have bridal Turkish bath specials.
So do Turkish people still go to Turkish baths to bathe, or is it just a touristic attraction now?
I went to a Turkish bath house when I visited Istanbul. My friends and I changed into a towel that they provided us with along with wooden slippers. Of course, there were separate sections for men and women and I think some bath houses appointed separate days for men and women to bathe.
It was very hot in the bath. The structure of it, the stones and running hot water was really nice and interesting. A couple of my friends got a scrub as well. We were there for a couple of hours.
But I must say that the heat was a bit too much for me, I had to have cold drinks to stay in the bath area. Everyone else seemed just fine though.
In the Ottoman times, visiting the hamam was the only option for bathing. It was also a place where women socialized and future mother-in-laws saw and selected brides for their sons.
I actually did not know of all this until I watched a movie that showed Ottoman life. It looked fun but also kind of awkward, as the women arrived at the hamam with homemade food and musical instruments for entertainment.
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