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Hamams (Turkish baths)

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The hamam (Turkish bath) once played a pivotal role in hygiene, social discourse and religious life (they were often part of a mosque complex) in Turkey, but as the standard of living has increased, its importance has diminished. As an exercise in nostalgia, however, it’s well worth visiting one – İstanbul in particular boasts many historic hamams (see The Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, Çemberlitaş Hamamı, Süleymaniye Hamamı, Cağaloğlu Hamamı) worth experiencing for their architecture alone – and, of course, they make for a very relaxing end to a day of slogging around the sights.

Most Turkish towns have at least one hamam, usually signposted; otherwise look for the distinctive external profile of the roof domes. Ordinary hamams chargeTL10–12 basic admission, the price normally indicated by the front desk; hamams in coastal tourist resorts and İstanbul can be far more expensive (TL15–180), with an optional scrub and/or massage adding to the cost. Baths are either for men or women, or sexually segregated on a schedule, with women usually allotted more restricted hours, usually midweek during the day.

Hamam etiquette

On entering, leave your valuables in a small locking drawer, keeping the key (usually on a wrist thong) with you for the duration. Bring soap and shampoo as it’s not always sold in the foyer. Men are supplied with a peştamal, a thin, wraparound sarong, women generally enter in knickers but not bra; both sexes get takunya, awkward wooden clogs, and later a havlu (towel). Leave your clothes in the changing cubicle (camekan in Turkish).

The hararet or main bath chamber ranges from plain to ornate, though any decent hamam will be marble-clad at least up to chest height. Two or more halvets, semi-private corner rooms with two or three kurnas (basins) each, lead off from the main chamber. The internal temperature varies from tryingly hot to barely lukewarm, depending on how well run the baths are. Unless with a friend, it’s one customer to a set of taps and basin; refrain from making a big soapy mess in the basin, which is meant for mixing pure water to ideal temperature. Use the scoop-dishes provided to sluice yourself. It’s considered good etiquette to clean your marble slab with a few scoopfuls of water before leaving.

At the heart of the hamam is the göbek taşı or “navel stone”, a raised platform positioned over the furnaces that heat the premises. The göbek taşı will be piping hot and covered with prostrate figures absorbing the heat. It’s also the venue for (very) vigorous massages from the tellâk or masseur/masseuse. A kese (abrasive mitt) session from the same person, in which dead skin and grime are scrubbed away, will probably suit more people. Terms for the tellâks’ services should be displayed in the foyer. Few hamams have a masseuse, so female visitors will have to think very carefully before accepting a massage from a masseur – though this is far from unknown. Scrubs and massages are charged extra, so make sure you know what you’ll be paying. Upon return to your cubicle with its reclining couch(es) you’ll be offered tea, soft drinks or mineral water – charged extra as per a posted price placard. Except in heavily touristed establishments, tips apart from the listed fees are not required or expected.

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