About an hour into my first visit to Istanbul, I somehow found myself sharing a cab with Shirley Manson, who told me that before I left Turkey, I needed to visit a Turkish bath. Go to one of the old ones, she said, by the Blue Mosque. She promised me it would be a life-changing experience. She wasn’t wrong.
I went to the Cemberlitas Hamami, which was built in 1584 to raise money for a nearby mosque. It has an unimpressive exterior, with a cheap plastic sign out front, and it's squeezed between a fast-food stand and a drugstore. But, when you take the stone stairway down into the original structure, the whole scene changes.
I entered the door into the women’s section, put my clothes into a locker, and was given a cotton wrap (a peshtemal) to wear and pointed into the sıcaklık, or hot room. I had assumed a Turkish bath was sort of like a fancy sauna or a steam room. That’s sort of right — it’s damp but not steamy.
In the center of the room is a large, hot, marble slab (göbek taşı), which I lay and sweat on for about 15 minutes to increase my body temperature. Now, maybe it was the intense heat or the steam, but there was something very womanly about that room — I lay there feeling 500 years of girl power coursing through my veins. This is how Drew Barrymore must feel all the time, I thought.
Then, my natir, or attendant, entered — an old Turkish lady naked to the waist, with long black and gray hair and one sideways front tooth. She filled a brass basin with water and started to scrub me down, hard, with a kese mitt — just the scrub and the sweat, no soap. At some points, this was actively unpleasant. It definitely hurt. It also took me entirely out of my head.
Like anyone living in Twitter culture, I have a hard time shutting up my brain. But, the scrub-down was so intense and strange that it was all I could think about. I was forced to be present, and my mind was clear.
By the time she was done, she was moving me around like a rag doll, and I was raw all over. She then added some kind of frothy olive-oil soap to the basin until it lathered, and she poured it over me, which felt like heaven after all the scrubbing. My skin had become so sensitive that the soap tingled; it felt like my whole body was numb and falling asleep — in a good way. Once this was finished, she washed my hair with almond and pistachio soap and then rinsed me off with more hot basin water. And, then, she left.
As more women filled the room and their whispers echoed throughout, I picked myself up for a cold shower. (Cemberlitas did not have the traditional pool.) I left feeling wide awake but also like I'd been wrung out like a towel — you don’t actually notice how much you’ve been sweating because of the soap. For the rest of the day I was super, super dehydrated. But, I was also near euphoria.
Sounds heavenly, right? If a trip to Turkey isn't in your cards, there are ways to get a similar experience in the comfort of your own home. Click through the slideshow to learn how.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit