The Shocking Thing I Found Inside a Turkish Hammam
Hammam bathhouses are an essential part of the culture of Istanbul. But I discovered something inside that shook me to my core.
This is a repost of an article from last year. But we have so many new subscribers, we thought we would resend it.
Living in Istanbul last summer, Michael and I knew we wanted to visit a Turkish hammam. Cleanliness is an important part of Türkiye’s Islamic culture, and we wanted to experience the famous hammam ritual for ourselves.
But we’d gotten to know one of the neighbors in our apartment building, a local man named Duman, and when I told him of our plans, he said, “You must not go to one of the tourist hammams. You must come with me to my hammam back in the neighborhood where I grew up. No tourists ever go there.”
Naturally, I was intrigued, even before he added, “You know what the tourist hammams charge? Five hundred lira. My hammam? One hundred lira. And the massage is longer too. Not just get you in and out for another customer.”
That was about eleven US dollars versus sixty.
I told Duman we’d love to accompany him, and a week or so later, we all piled into a rented Zip-Car — along with two more of the building’s residents, Artemis and Yusuf.
And we drove. Like, an hour. Which isn’t necessarily saying we drove far, because Istanbul traffic is horrendous. But this place wasn’t on a metro line, and there would have been way too many bus transfers to get there. Besides, a Zip-car for the whole night cost all of thirty-five lira — about four dollars.
Still, we drove for a long time outside Istanbul’s majestic if crumbling city walls, and at one point, I thought, “Should I be worried? A month ago, I didn’t know any of these people.”
Except I wasn’t worried. I didn’t know Yusuf or Artemis well — and, in fact, neither of them spoke English. But we’d had tea with Duman several times, and gone out to dinner, and I trusted him completely. If this was a con, he was so smooth he almost deserved to rip us off.
Finally, we arrived at the hammam. Duman told us the building was nine hundred years old, though, in fairness, it had only been a hammam since 1489.
We went to our individual dressing rooms, where I stripped naked and wrapped myself in the peştemal, or hammam towel.
Duman led us to the hot room, which is a large domed room with water basins all around. By now, we were segregated by sex, but Duman, Yusuf, Michael, and I climbed up onto the göbek taşı — a large marble platform under the dome.
“It’s heated by real burning wood underneath!” said Duman, excited. It definitely felt like it. “The heat and sweat will push the dirt out of your skin.”
As we lounged, chatted, and began to sweat, the attendant brought us large glasses of freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice, and a large tray of chilled, sliced watermelon.
When we were all thoroughly drenched with sweat, the masseur, called a natir, appeared. I went first, and he led me into the tepid room, which is like a steam room, where my entire body was scrubbed with a kese — a rough mitten — to get the dead skin cells off.
And very private parts aside, I do mean my entire body.
Then I was washed and rinsed in warm water from nearby basins, and the natir clipped my toenails, which I definitely didn’t expect.
Next came the köpük, which is the famous soap massage. Your body is engulfed in great mounds of very warm soap bubbles, and then you’re massaged. And again, except for my very private parts, I was massaged all over, and for a very long time.
My body was kneaded, folded, twisted, and pounded. I later learned that my natir apparently practiced a form of chiropractic massage that Michael’s didn’t, and I wasn’t always a fan.
There was also a breathing ritual where the natir and I briefly breathe the same air, and I didn’t love this either, at least in the age of Covid. But hey, I was vaccinated.
All through the ritual, I did everything wrong. I sat on my stomach when I was supposed to be on my back. I sat up when I was supposed to lean back. I opened my eyes in the middle of the soap massage.
I really regret the last mistake, because while those warm bubbles feel amazing, they’re not made with Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, so they stung like hell.
Still, through it all, I was never embarrassed, because, hey, it was my first time in a hammam, and how the hell was I supposed to know what to do? The natir didn’t speak English, but he always patiently smiled at me, directing me what to do next.
Even the nudity felt like no big deal, perfectly natural in the context of the place. People had been doing this for thousands of years — for half a millennium, inside this very building. Did I really think there was anything these walls hadn’t seen?
I finally had one more rinse with warm water, and I was led into the cool room, where another attendant gently dried me, even fanning me in various places.
Then, wrapped in a towel, we all gathered for Turkish coffee and another casual chat.
The price for all this food and drink, and the “complete” service experience? Three hundred lira for both Michael and me, about thirty-six US dollars — though we gave another hundred lira tip, which, based on the reaction of the workers, might be the largest tip ever given at this place since it opened in 1489.
Later, back in our home neighborhood, we took Duman and others out for dessert and talked some more. Four out of five of us didn’t speak the same language, but the more Michael and I travel, the more meals like this are becoming common.
And weirdly, if someone is translating, by the end of the night, I still always feel like I know the non-English-speakers.
Tonight, Duman translated for us.
At one point, Artemis said something in Turkish, and Duman and Yusuf laughed, and I said, “What’d she say? What’d she say?”
“She said, ‘Everything in life is a lie, only the hammam massage is true.’”
And now I laughed too. But then I thought some more, and nodded, deciding what she’d said was actually very profound.
Later, back at our apartment building, I said goodnight to Duman, “Thanks for tonight. It was really fun.”
He looked at me, thinking. “You are American, but you are not like other Americans,” he said. “You do not act like a tourist.”
I knew part of this was just Duman sucking up to me, because, come on, that’s what good friends do: they tell us what we most want to hear.
But he seemed sincere, and I was curious what he meant, so I said, “What do you mean?”
“You do new things, but you are comfortable,” he said. “You are not nervous or uptight.”
But I am! I immediately thought. I’m sooooooo uptight! How in the world could you have such a completely wrong impression of me? I’m not a risk-taker! I’m not an adventurer at all!
I was about to tell Duman all this when I remembered everything he’d seen me do:
I’d moved to Istanbul a month earlier, and I’d started hanging out with a bunch of Turkish friends, including him.
I’d just let him drive me far out into some unfamiliar part of the city, so I could strip naked, and have my body soaped up and twisted and breathed on, deep in the bowels of some ancient, forgotten building.
And, oh, yeah, almost no one spoke English.
And none of this had made me hesitate at all. Tonight really hadn’t been any big deal. It was literally just another day in the life of Brent and Michael.
So was I not the same person I’d been when I left America four years ago? Did Duman know me better than I knew myself?
Yes and no.
Okay, yeah, sure, travel has revealed some interesting new facets to myself.
But here’s the thing: I think I mostly still am the same person I was before. I’m not a risk-taker, and I’m not particularly adventurous.
I’ve just learned the vast majority of the world isn’t anything to be afraid of. That’s why Duman hadn’t seen me be nervous or uptight.
I mean, when you travel, you definitely can’t be an idiot. You always have to do your due diligence, and trust your instincts, and have the confidence to speak up if something feels wrong.
And, of course, you should never take unnecessary, stupid risks.
But if you do these things? Most of the time, things will work out just fine.
Here’s where I openly concede that much of the comfort I now feel in the world is the direct result of the privilege that comes from being a white American male with money — not a lot of money, but enough to be comfortable. Definitely more than most of my non-American friends.
But remember what Artemis said about how the hammam massage is the truth and the rest of life is the lie?
That’s true of fear too, at least for middle class Americans like me. Most of what we fear — not all, but most — is another lie. The truth is the joy we feel when we realize that most of our fears aren’t real.
So this was the “shocking” thing I found inside that Turkish hammam: the realization that most of my former fears about the world were almost completely unfounded.
But this part didn’t sting or hurt me at all, and it’s nice to be reminded than sometimes the world can surprise me in very wonderful ways.