This is a short overview of hamam terms and etiquette for anyone who is planning to visit a hamam and either needs to review some common terminology that will come up or want to know generally what one can expect to experience before you go.
Why are there Hamams?
Traditionally, Turkish homes did not feature private bathing facilities. Instead, people had to go to their local bathhouse (hamam) to get clean. The hamam was usually built under the waqf (endowment) of a nearby mosque. In Islam, public baths were especially important due to the religion’s emphasis on personal cleanliness. Public bathhouses are not a unique concept to the Turks. This tradition has been passed down from the Byzantines, and before them the Romans. Going to the baths was a huge part of ancient Roman culture, although the Romans had a hot and a cold room (calidarium and frigidarium, respectively), while Turkish baths tend to only have a hot room. Russians also enjoy going to the banya, and there are many differences to a Turkish bath, most notably that men and women bath together, while in Turkey they are always separated or a bath will have different times in the week designated for the two sexes.
Nowadays most Turkish families have private bathrooms in their homes, so the need for hamams has waned. Men and women still like to go for the pampering, and the massages offered at the hamams could be considered a form of alternative medicine. Other hamams survive largely by catering to tourists.
What to Expect
Upon entry you will find yourself in the main entrance hall (camekan), where an attendant should show you to your personal dressing space, whether it be a locker, stall, cubicle, or private room. The attendant should also provide you with your wrapping towel and sandals. Undress, store your clothes, and wrap the towel around yourself. Once you are ready, signal to the attendant and they will lead you into the hot room (sıcaklık), where you will probably be seated near a basin. You are usually just left alone to sit for awhile and soak in the steam, and to douse yourself with hot or cold water with your bowl. You can give yourself your own bath, which is cheaper, but normally an attendant will signal to you when it is your turn to lie down on the central slab of stone. What you want to have done is completely up to you. Some people opt for just a scrub and then wash themselves down, and some people ask the masseuse to do it all. These services do cost more, but generally they are not very expensive. First, the attendant will scrub you down with a rough scrubbing mitten (kese). Expect large layers of dead skin that you didn’t even know you had to be scrubbed off. Then, you can get a massage, separately or in conjunction with a soaping down, where the attendant will basically use a loofah or washcloth and give you a bath with some body wash. Once you are done with the attendant, you are left to return to your spot in the hot room, and you can relax for a little while. Remember to drink plenty of cold water, especially after a massage, because you get very dehydrated in a hamam. Whenever you are ready, you can return to the entrance hallway to your dressing place, change, and pay on your way out. A 10 to 20% tip is reasonable.
As for the issue of nudity inside of the hot rooms themselves, generally men are expected to keep their wrap cloth on the entire time and women may go totally nude, or wear a swimsuit or underwear, or just their bottoms. For women it very much depends on your age, whether you are a foreigner, and if the hamam is local or touristy. If you want to be on the safe side, wear both bottoms and a bra, and take them off accordingly if you feel comfortable doing so. Also, for Turkish women the removal of body hair is no less than an obsession, so if you want to minimize embarrassment women should make en effort to shave/wax/trim the offending areas, or just keep their bottoms on to cover up their bikini zone when at the hamam.
Remember that you will get completely drenched, so here are some things to remember to bring with you: brush or comb, extra pair of underwear if you wear them in the hamam, makeup, body wash, and shampoo.
The bottom line is that you shouldn’t worry about messing up or being embarrassed and just have a good time. Going to the hamam is a laid-back and relaxing experience, and no Turkish person will expect a foreigner to know how things work anyway, and they will most likely be extremely helpful and forgiving. Also, the expectations about nudity and bathing are different from hamam to hamam, so the most important thing to remember is to observe other people, and then just do as they do. There will almost definitely be other people in the baths before you, so just watch them and take their lead, and have a great time.
HAIR-DRYER- saç kurutma makinesi
NORMAL TOWEL- havlu
SCRUBBING MITTEN- kese
WRAP TOWEL- peştamal
COLD WATER- soğuk su
DRESSING CUBICLE- halvet
HOT ROOM- sıcaklık
HOT WATER- sıcak su
“NAVEL STONE” (CENTRAL SLAB)- göbek taşı