Bathing with strangers: what to expect at a Turkish hammam




In Turkey, one of the quickest ways to break the ice is to get naked in a room full of strangers. I’m talking, of course, about visiting the hammam. The hammam, or Turkish bath, has been around since the ancient Romans ruled much of Anatolia, and flourished during the Ottoman Empire, when baths were built in almost every city to address both public hygiene as well as provide a place for socializing.

Turks today have their own baths and they typically go to the café or çayhane (tea house) to meet up with friends. Modern spas have also edged out hammams. But while the practice of going to the hammam is on the wane, it is still possible – and downright enjoyable – to bathe at a hammam in Turkey. A hammam visit is also an incredible cultural experience, allowing you, in many cases, to see the interior of baths that have been in operation since the 16th century and an opportunity to meet other Turks in a relaxed setting.

Seeing as how going to a public bath is unusual for many travelers, I’ve put together a list of things to expect when going to a Turkish hammam.Disclaimer: These tips hold true for female hammam-goers. I can not speak for the men’s baths. But I understand from male friends who have gone to the hammam that the experience is similar but with naked men instead of naked ladies.

Carry your own supplies. If you’re planning on visiting a hammam when you go to Turkey, consider packing a waterproof toiletries bag that you don’t mind getting wet as you’ll carry the bag and your supplies into the hammam. Suggested toiletries include shampoo, conditioner, bath soap (preferably shower gel), and a loofah or one of those plastic shower puffs. You’ll also want a “kese,” an abrasive cloth that is used to scrub off all of your dead skin cells. These are almost always available for purchase at the hammam for a few lira, but you can also buy them on the local market at textile stores and in some toiletries sections of drugstores. Flip flops or other shower shoes are a must, though the hammams will have (usually wooden and uncomfortable) slippers called nalın that you can use during your visit. Bring a towel with you. A thin, cotton cover-up (peştemal) similar to a sarong, will be provided, but it is no substitute for a towel.

Don’t take valuables with you. When you arrive at the hammam, you will be given a changing room where you can take off your clothes or, if you’re the modest type, change into your swimsuit (preferably a two-piece). Then you will have to leave your belongings behind as you head into the steam rooms of the hammam. Most changing rooms that I encountered during my hammam excursions did not have locks, nor did they provide latches on which to hang your own padlocks. Rest assured, I never had anything stolen in Turkey. But you should be aware that theft in high tourist areas is always possible.

Go with a friend. Taking a friend with you to the hammam is by no means required. But know that for the first half an hour or so, you will sit in what is called a “warm room.” There, you will be absorbing steam, scooping warm water from a perpetually running fountain, and pouring it over yourself to prepare your epidermis for scrubbing. During this time, it’s great to have a friend to talk to and to share the experience with. And, when I say “friend,” I mean someone of the same sex. Hammams are either divided into men’s and women’s sections or they will require men and women to come at separate times.

Respect others’ space. No matter if you are at a hammam in Istanbul or Anatolia, you will encounter others – and don’t expect them to be clothed. Most people who have been going to hammams all their lives are comfortable taking it all off at the hammam and many women that I (gingerly) observed in hammams across Turkey had no qualms about doing personal maintenance, such as shaving, while in the baths. Don’t stare or balk. But also don’t be surprised if the naked woman at the basin next to you tries to strike up a conversation.

Prepare to be intimate with the hammam worker. The moment of truth. When it is your turn to be splayed on the marble slab in the central room of the hammam, the hamamci (Turkish for hammam worker), clad in her hammam uniform (i.e., her underwear), will come to the warm room to fetch you. Once you are in the central room, the hamamci will proceed to scrub your whole body, front and back, with soap. When your skin is perfectly saturated, the kese scrubbing will begin. Note that a hamam attendant armed with a kese is the original microdermabrasion. The hamamci will be able to will rolls and rolls of dead skin cells from your body, the result being, of course, a healthier glow. Endure it. After this portion of the scrub-down, the hamamci will typically give you a coarse massage (unless you’ve paid more for the privilege), wash your hair, and give you another thorough rinsing.

Leave a tip. The price for a basic hammam visit in Istanbul and around tourist centers like Antalya runs near $40 to $50 these days. In Ankara and many other parts of Anatolia where there are more locals than tourists visiting the hammam, you can expect to pay less than $30 for a soap and kese scrub. Most hammams also offer other services, such as waxing, manicures/pedicures, and hair dyeing, for an additional cost. A good rule of thumb is to tip your hamamci approximately 20 percent of the total services.

Photo of the painting Pipe Lighter by Jean-Léon Gérôme by Flickr user Heilemann

The world’s most disputed antiquities: a top 5 list



New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced Tuesday that it would return 19 Egyptian antiquities that have lived at the museum for most of the last century. These artifacts, excavated from the 14th century B.C. tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut), include a sphinx bracelet, a small bronze dog, and a broad collar with beads, among other bits and pieces. Zahi Hawass, the former Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, argued for the artifacts’ return in November 2010, claiming that the artifacts had been removed from the tomb illegally in the 1920s. But, the instability in Egypt during and following that country’s revolution this year has delayed the repatriation of King Tut’s belongings.

One of the biggest arguments in the art world is the repatriation of objects, particularly antiquities. On one side of the debate are art scholars who feel that ancient objects should remain in the care of their current (usually Western) museums or locations. The other side argues that antiquities should be returned to the countries from which they were removed because they were taken during times of war and colonization or were stolen and sold through the highly lucrative art black market.

It’s true that a great many antiquities and works of art we enjoy at museums today may have been acquired through looting or other unsavory practices. Here are five of the most famous works of art that have been repatriated or are the focus of an ongoing battle for ownership.1) Elgin Marbles
Where are they now? The British Museum, London
Where were they? The Parthenon, Athens, Greece
The Elgin Marbles, pictured in the featured image above, are synonymous with the repatriation debate. Also known as the Parthenon Marbles, these remarkable marble carvings once fronted the Parthenon and other buildings on Athens‘ ancient Acropolis. They were removed – some say vandalized – by Lord Elgin, former Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in the late 18th century and sold in 1816 to London‘s British Museum, where they have lived ever since. Authorities in Greece have been trying for decades to have the marbles returned to Athens where they can be reunited with other Greek antiquities in the Acropolis Museum.

2) Obelisk of Aksum
Where is it now? Aksum, Ethiopia
Where was it? Rome, Italy
One of the first, high-profile repatriations of an antiquity was the return by Italy of the Obelisk of Aksum (or Axum) to Ethiopia. Pillaged by Mussolini’s troops in 1937, the 1,700-year old obelisk stood for years in the center of a traffic circle in Rome until 2005 when the government of Italy agreed to its return. The Obelisk of Aksum now resides with objects of a similar era at the Aksum World Heritage site in northern Ethiopia.

3) Objects from King Tut’s Tomb
Where are they now? The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Where are they headed? Giza, Egypt
As described in the intro, these priceless objects from King Tut’s tomb are set to be returned to Egypt next week. Egypt plans to install these objects at the new Grand Egyptian Museum, currently under construction and slated to open in 2012

4) Dea Morgantina (Aphrodite)
Where is it now? Aidone, Sicily
Where was it? Getty Museum, Los Angeles
The investigative reporting of two L.A. Times journalists was responsible for the recent repatriation of the Dea Morgantina, an ancient Aphrodite sculpture that had been a prized possession of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, which takes a look at the repatriation debate and the flourishing arts black market, led the Getty Museum to return the stolen statue to its rightful home. The Aphrodite was inaugurated at the Archeological Museum of Morgantina in Sicily in early May 2011.

5) Hattuşa Sphinx
Where is it now? Istanbul, Turkey
Where was it? Berlin, Germany
Just last week, an ancient sphinx returned home to Turkey after years spent in Berlin‘s Pergamon Museum. One of a pair of sphinxes that stood in the ancient Hittite capital of Hattuşa, the sphinx will be restored at the Istanbul Archeological Museum before being returned to its ancient home approximately 150 miles northeast of Ankara.

[Flickr image via telemax]

Tiger escapes zoo enclosure in Turkey, kills lion

tiger escapes zooA Bengal tiger escaped his enclosure at a zoo in Turkey‘s capital city of Ankara, killing a lion in the adjacent area. The lion was killed in a single swipe to the jugular vein. The tiger had previously wounded the lion last year. Ankara Zoo officials say that the tiger reached the lion through a hole in the fence between the animals and did not knock down the fence. The zoo has a remaining six tigers and two lions and is safe for visitors.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user chrisada]