Hamam – anyone?

Yesterday was our hamam day. Pat and I choose one which has been operating since 1842 providing a range of services to clients (women at certain time of the day and men at others) and thus employment for women (at certain times of the day and men at others) as washers and masseuses. Jan went to a self-serve hamam with no services (women on one side and men on the other). She bathed in one very large room, supplied her own towel, soap, and washed herself with buckets of water. We all enjoyed our different experiences but this tale is about Pat’s and my afternoon at the hamam.

We undressed and were given tiny (very) wee paper knickers, sort of itzy bitty g strings. They covered next to nothing. Our clothes were placed into whisker baskets along with our glasses. We were then led into a series of small steamy rooms. The inner most was quite hot and we sat in there on marble slabs and got a good sweat going. We were led in and out of this room several times over the next hour and were, between steams, douced with buckets of water, lathered with mud, scrubbed (everywhere ) with a course cloth, showered, shampooed and eventually wrapped in heated robes and taken to loungers upon which we were required to rest. (Pat got up at one point during this resting time to access our locker but was chastised for getting off her bed.) The women working in the hamam seemed to find us quite funny as we didn’t know the routine but they were very obliging in ensuring we did everything correctly. The other hamam users were similarly kindly accommodating of us odd silly foreign ladies. Unlike the hamam in Turkey, the employees here were not naked and wore bathing suits as they performed their scrubbing and dousing duties.

After our rest period, during which we were served tea, we were led upstairs for our massage. This was a gift as we hadn’t paid for the added treatment but it seemed they wanted us to experience the full hamam hospitality. Our massages were lovely. We were well oiled (everywhere) then suitably rested afterwards. We got in a bit of trouble for talking during the rest period during which we were to lie quietly in small darkened rooms.

I followed all this steaming, scrubbing, oiling, massaging and resting up with getting a henna tattoo on my hand. I hope it lasts a week or so as it’s quite pretty. The old woman who drew the design did it free hand with considerable skill.

As with our hamam in Istanbul, we thoroughly enjoyed this experience. There are a number of similar aspects, such as the very personal nature of being washed and scrubbed (everywhere) by a stranger. There are also marked differences in that while we were there, this hamam was also being enjoyed by several local women. Here there was a tad more modesty and here and the steaming was hotter and more prolonged. 

While for us this is a novel experience to be tasted and some aspects chuckled about, for many women who live here, the hamam is an integral and very important aspect of their lives. Some homes do not have hot water, some don’t even have running water. Most women work very long hard hours and live in crowded demanding homes. The hamam is often their place of refuge from toil, and perhaps the only place where they can bathe or have privacy. We appreciate the opportunity to share this special time and place with them, and we thank the women who welcomed us into the sanctuary of their hamam.

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