Beat Up in Istanbul (Part 1): The Turkish Bath

I got beat up twice in Istanbul. Both times I paid for it willingly. Both were very strange and fun cultural experiences that put me out my comfort zone, literally. The first, a massage at a Turkish bath. The second: a simple haircut.

Büyük Hamam

After doing a bit of research, it seemed evident that a trip to a Turkish hammam or bath was in the cards for our trip. I knew that half of them were tourist traps, but the others were a legitimate cultural institution of this country. I located one in they Beyoglu district near our hotel and Sydney and I ventured out one morning to give it a go.

After a quick stroll past a football field and a neighborhood mosque, we arrived. The baths were separated by sex, so Sydney went into separate doors and I didn’t see her again until afterwards.

I entered a two story-lobby with small dressing rooms lining the walls on all sides and was greeted by an attendant who removed my shoes and gave me flip-flops. The open room had a leather sofa in the middle where a couple of older men were camped out watching a dramatic1950’s Turkish film on a big screen TV.  The kind with the cliché damsel in distress and a mustachioed hairy hero who’s only personality characteristic is being a bad ass. The attendant led me to one of the adjoining changing rooms and gave me a key to the room. In the room was my pestemal, essentially just a thin towel, which was to be my only garment. Upon changing, I exited the room and was immediately ushered into the steam room adjacent to the lobby.

I entered the steam room and found I was the only one there. It was a large hexagonal marble room and from each wall an ornate marble faucet filled a small sink directly below it. There were no lights, only “elephant eyes,” head-sized holes covering the turquoise-colored dome ceiling that allowed sunlight into the chamber below. Each wall had a bulb-shaped doorway that led to another subchamber: a rectangular room a quarter of the size of the main chamber with similar sinks sticking out of the also marble walls.

In the center of the main chamber was a large hexagonal centerpiece made from a variety of colored marble slabs. It was the only part of the chamber made from colored marble, the rest of the floors, walls, and ceilings were simply white.

The room was hot. Sitting down made it much easier to breath as the air was heavy and thick. After a few minutes I was drenched in sweat and feeling dizzy. The centerpiece was initially difficulty to sit on as it was also extremely hot. I eventually adjusted to the conditions and reflected on our trip, which was now in its final hours.

About five to ten minutes later a Turkish masseuse arrived. He was an older, skinny man, balding, and missing a few teeth. He greeted me warmly with a toothy grin and I immediately found he didn’t speak a word of English apart from “good massage,” a phrase he used as a question and declaratory statement many times throughout our time together to suit whatever occasion in which he needed to communicate something.

He took me back into one of the subchambers and sat me next to a marble sink. After filling a bowl of very hot water he poured it on my face and body. While still a little woozy from the heat, I wasn’t thrilled about being doused with yet more searing heat. After the rinsing, the man gestured to himself and said, “Ahmet.” I did likewise, with, “Andrew.” That turned out to be the deepest level of mutual understanding we would have.

Ahmet produced a coarse brush and rinsed it, then started plucking up my arms, legs, fingers, toes, and scrubbed them vigorously. My face and neck also received such a forceful brushing. I was somewhat grotesquely fascinated by how much dead skin came off throughout this thorough exfoliation. After losing just about my entire epidermis, Ahmet switched immediately into soaping and repeated the routine. Occasionally he would break into song, something in Turkish, naturally, but it added an additional layer of foreignness and mystique to this already odd and at times awkward situation.

After I was lathered up and subsequently rinsed, I was taken back to the main chamber and made to lay on the marble centerpiece. My body temperature had adjusted considerably since my prior experience on this geometric stone slab and I hardly noticed the heat.

After laying down, Ahmet began working out the kinks in my muscles—something I expected from a massage and quite enjoyed. Upon starting his second routine, however, I felt like I was back in my high school wrestling practice. I found my arms twisted back behind my back in a textbook half-nelson. My legs were pulled backwards far beyond their normal range of motion, and every time he would move to a different part of my body he would let out somewhat of a shout and forcefully hit that appendage before hoisting it into his lap and pulling it as far as I could handle (or further). His strategy of working the knots out of my muscles clearly involved tying my body into knots.

After the punching and the pulling, then came the pinching. He pinched and tugged on the skin all along my back, doing so with a kind of violent growl and uttered into my ear an enthusiastic, “good massage!” “Good massage,” I gasped in reply. I was afraid if I didn’t agree I might find out what a bad massage looks like.

Ahmet was done thoroughly beat up my body. He walked away and returned a moment later with cold water that he dumped all over my body. I shuddered reflexively but had an incredibly fresh sensation and let out an exhilarated yell. He gave me a dry towel and led me out to the main lobby. I thanked him in Turkish and returned to the lobby where another attendant was waiting with a series of towels.

I was wrapped head to toe in towels, including a towel headdress and made to sit on the leather sofa I had seen walking in. I hung out with a few other burly Turkish men who were now watching a football game when I was brought a cold drink of water. At this point I was feeling completely refreshed. My skin felt new, my muscles loose, and I sunk lazily into the sofa for a few minutes before remembering that Sydney might be waiting outside. I paid the bill (33 Lira, a little less than 20 dollars), thanked the attendants and went on my way.

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