Once More to the Turkish Bath

Writer Andy Owens on his favorite scrub down

By / December 2013

The thermometer over the door says its 81 degrees, but already I am sweating like it’s 110. I have just set foot inside of the hamam in downtown Denizli. Windows of frosted glass, a fountain of white marble, wooden benches, a stone basin with tired chandelier overtop — my survey of the ancient bath house, built in 1246, is cut short by a bulky attendant, who ushers me toward a tiny changing stall. I know the drill. I trade my shoes for a pair of cheap plastic sandals, and my clothes for a pestemal, a thin cotton towel that I tie around my waist. After grabbing a small bar of soap with crisp edges and “Welcome” engraved into one side, I prepare myself for the scrub down of all scrub downs.

A massive dome bowels over the center of the room. More than three hundred small, round skylights allow sunlight to pass through the domed roof. The plaster up there has to be replaced every year due to the humidity. The sunlight struggles to needle through the steam. Grey marble covers nearly every surface up to a height of ten feet. Marble shower stalls stand sentry around the perimeter. I leave my soap on the ledge of one and let the dry heat of the sauna sting my skin for ten, fifteen minutes.

Next it is time to make my way to the belly-stone, which, in my experience, is one of the few places in the world where distinctions truly seem to fade away. Middle-age businessmen, young construction workers, retired teachers, overweight, underweight, hairy, hairless, it doesn’t matter. Everyone lies on the same twelve-foot by twelve-foot heated marble table, covered (just barely) by thin pestemal towels. Periodically the sound of a bath attendant’s well-cupped hand smacking the back of a prostrate customer overwhelms the rush of water.

In Denizli it costs about $10 to enter the hamam. But those who want the scrub-down have to fork out another $5 directly to their bath attendant. Though it’s a little like paying a bar bouncer to rough you up, I’ve never once wanted to leave without it. I lie on my back on the marble slab. Today my attendant is outside the bell curve, neither large nor old enough to be my dad. He’s a wiry guy who looks like he should have a role in a Turkish remake of a Bruce Lee movie.

After carefully adjusting my pestemal towel, he puts the kese on his hand. It’s a woolen bath mitten woven tight and thick. Starting at my ankles he scrubs off the dead skin. Scrubbing (no, scrubbing is too tame a verb; think sanding, think planing) his way up the length of me he folds my arms up over my head, attacking the skin under my arms. Then, carefully unfolding my towel to keep me covered, he says to roll over.

He repeats the process on the back of my body until there are small rolls of gray flesh piled around me, some as thick as erasers. I’ve heard it said that you leave the hamam with your skin a shade lighter than when you entered. I suspect the attendant is about to smack me right between the shoulder blades. He does. It stings a little. But it sounds worse than it feels. When I sit up, he takes to scrubbing my head and face. Then he leads me to one of the shower stalls where he rinses me off by pouring gallons of cool water over my body. Then back to the table. This time when I lie back down, he is holding a basin of hot soapy water, and what looks like a pillow-case.

Photograph by Josh Hinton

After swirling the fabric bag in the suds for a few seconds, he swings it back and forth to fill it with air. Somehow the thin fabric turns the soapy solution into millions of tiny suds, which he is now squeezing all over me. After nearly burying me in a mountain of bubbles, the bath attendant begins a massage. Or maybe he’s washing me. I can’t quite tell. But after rolling me over and repeating the process on my back, head, and face, he douses me with bucket after bucket of cold water again. Twenty minutes have passed, twenty minutes that felt like five. I wish I could start over from the beginning, but the cold pool is a fitting consolation.

After the massage and the heat, standing in a five-foot deep pool and dipping my head under a fountain gushing with almost unbearably frigid water is unbelievably relaxing. A few minutes later, I head to the steam room, then back for another dip in the cold pool. After a final shower, I find my way back to the entry room. Another attendant sits me down and wraps me tightly in two terry-cloth towels, one around my shoulders and one around my head. I take a seat around the marble fountain and gladly sip a cup of Turkish tea.

I chat with a few locals who’ve just finished up as well. But we mostly just listen to the news on the radio. But I’m distracted, wondering what it is that keeps me coming back. The Romans and Byzantines started building bathhouses out of necessity. People didn’t have electricity and plumbing. The Selcuk and Ottoman Turks proliferated them – and made them beautiful. There is something inexplicably exotic about the experience. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. There were more than six hundred Turkish Baths built in Britain during the Victorian era.

But I’m too tired to think about all of this for long. I finish my tea and unlock my changing stall. Now I really understand why there is a small bed in each of these stalls. A nap would be so fitting right now.


Andy Owens is an EthnoTraveler contributor.