The closest thing to communal bathing that the English experience is at the leisure centre. It normally involves a black school-issue swimming costume, industrial strength chlorine and at least one verruca sock. The glamour peaks in the changing rooms where pasty bodies hide in corners, concealing their damp dignity with greying towels. It is not this nation’s nature to parade sans clothes. In fact, I personally have spent the last decade avoiding public displays of nudeness at all costs.
My metaphorical and physical towel was ripped straight off though on a recent trip to Istanbul when a friend and I visited a hamam. Kılıç Ali Paşa is a traditional Turkish bath house originally built alongside a mosque in the 16th century by Ottoman architect Sinan. Today, tourists and locals use the space to be scrubbed and rubbed by attendants who take a no nonsense approach to their naked clientele.
“A part of me wished that communal nakedness was a bigger part of British culture as it is for the Japanese with their onsens or the Swedish with their saunas.”
I booked a lunchtime appointment for my friend and me on the first day of our trip. As we entered the private courtyard the call to prayer echoed across the marble walls. Women lounged around the courtyard in robes and towels, reading or sleeping or sipping hibiscus tea. Historically the punishment for entering a hamam of the opposite sex was death, but now Kılıç Ali Paşa offers men and women separate bathing times to avoid any unnecessary executions.
There are many layers to a hamam bathing ritual. Each step is designed to relax and revive, making it the perfect antidote to a day of sightseeing. Once we had changed into bikini bottoms and wrapped ourselves in Turkish towels, attendants ushered us into a steamy anti-chamber where our towels were yanked off, and much to our anxious amusement, warm water thrown over our bodies and heads.
After being adequately soaked, we were invited through to the main wet room. My English prudishness was ruffled by the number of naked bodies languishing under the vast dome ceiling. A low hum of gossip and laughter permeated the air as friends, sisters and strangers conversed through the steam and suds. It was not dissimilar to a nail salon or hairdressers, except for all the boobs on show.
“In this place, where all shapes and sizes existed, I suddenly felt far less self conscious.”
Talking of boobs, I have always been uncomfortable about exposing my own. But in this place, where all shapes and sizes existed, I suddenly felt far less self conscious. When I noticed a women with substantial scarring across her chest, I realised how lucky I was to have the healthy breasts that I do. Suddenly I felt proud of the body designed to carry me through the world, rather than embarrassed of its lumps and bumps. A part of me wished that communal nakedness was a bigger part of British culture as it is for the Japanese with their onsens or the Swedish with their saunas.
We were instructed to join a group of women laying on a huge marble slab. As I wiggled on, the warmth of the stone eased my muscles instantly. My friend, who has the body temperature of a lizard, quipped she would like to replace the island in her kitchen with such a feature.
“For the rest of the day I smelt like a piece of Turkish delight.”
Once we were adequately heated, an attendant lead us to a washing station which consisted of marble steps to sit on, a bucket of water, a bar of soap and a copper tap and sink to replenish the water that will inevitably be sloshed all over you. What followed was a comprehensive scrubbing with a rough sponge (causing my lizard friend to shed a surprising amount of skin), a vigorous massage with a bar of soap and, much to my delight, a soap-show where a light mesh towel was used to create reams of thick luxurious bubbles that covered us entirely. After we were dried, our new skins rubbed with rose and almond oil in a full body massage. For the rest of the day I smelt like a piece of Turkish delight.
When strangers have taken such care washing and drying every part of you without a trace of judgement, a peculiar thing happens. Perhaps it is the animalistic side in all of us, but being in your natural state is humbling and, once you’re over the initial anxiety, calming. I will still avoid leisure centres. But I might start dropping my towel more at home.
A bathing ritual and 50 minute full body massage at Kılıç Ali Paşa costs £87. Book via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.