People often ask me what the coolest, most interesting thing I’ve ever done has been. When I respond that it was a Turkish bath in Istanbul, they always look perplexed and confused.
I remember the night so clearly that I can smell the air and feel the temperature of the air just thinking about it. We had just finished dinner on the roof top at the Four Seasons overlooking the Hagia Sophia (at the recommendation of a friend). We all had full bellies and were relaxed from the bottle of red wine we shared. The air was brisk, like a cold fall night in Ohio, and smelled like the sea – salty, fishy, and moist. We had a few blocks to walk to the Hamam (Arabic for Turkish bath) but we enjoyed the darkness of Istanbul with the street lights illuminating our way and people hustling to wherever they were going.
As we arrived at the tall, heavy, wooden door to the Hamam and opened it, we all became a little uneasy. We didn’t know what to expect and had read a variety of reviews online…some good, some not so good. We were instructed to each go into our own dressing rooms, remove our clothes, and exit in a white towel they provided. My brother, Matt, would be going to a separate room in the Hamam as men and women do not share this experience together (there is full nudity, so it’s completely understandable).
As soon as we had stripped ourselves of all clothing, we gathered with a guide who led us through a locker room and into a large marble room. The room was the size of a high school gym, and it was quiet, with only the sound of water dripping and echoing against the marbled walls. In the center of the room was a large circular slab of marble about two feet in the air. Laying on the edge of the marble were two other women, completely naked and spread out on their towels. We, uncertain of what we should do, followed suit laying our towels flat on the marble so we could sprawl out as well.
By this point in time, our guide had left us, so we quietly laid and listened to the sounds of each other breathing and water dripping. After about 10 minutes, several women in black, one-piece swimsuits arrived, each carrying a metal bucket full of water. The woman “assigned” to me tapped me gently and gestured for me to sit up (they could not speak English, so only hand signals were used). She reached into the pail of water and scooped out a handful of soapy water, splashing it on my back and shoulders. As she lifted her arm in the air, a very strong smell of body order filled my nostrils. This would be ongoing for the remainder of my experience, although it certainly did not ruin it, it was just memorable.
She massaged my back and neck ever so gracefully, knowing exactly how much pressure to give, and all the right places to really put me into a deep relaxation. She had me lay on by back and massaged my stomach, my legs, my feet. Everything. The final part of the massage involved a full head shampoo. She washed my hair and massaged by scalp and face. And when she was done with that, she motioned for me to follow her to an area near the exit of the Hamam, where running water was available to rinse out my hair. (This is also what was causing the dripping sound I had heard earlier.)
And when she finished rinsing me, she indicated that I could lay back down on the warm marble slap and relax for as long as I’d like. And I did. We all did. For several minutes.
When we finally left and clothed ourselves, preparing for our walk back to the hotel in the cool air, I could see the relaxed state of my family. Thirty minutes later we were all in bed. It is the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.
I took a bar of soap from that Hamam back to The States with me. I’ve been hesitant to use it as the smell of it brings back such great memories. Maybe tonight I’ll take just a sliver of it, a small piece, and relive those moments for just a few seconds. 🙂