The Hamam and A Hammam

Cagaloglu Hamam, Istanbul: Built 1741

A hamam (can be spelled hammam)  is also known as a Turkish bath, or a steam bath.  The hamam is the place where people in Middle Eastern communities bathed for centuries. They reached their height of popularity in Istanbul in the 15th century, and are still frequented today. Hamams are famous for their grand architecture, marble steam rooms, and bath attendants that will scour, soap and massage you clean. More recently, there has been a growing interest in hamams in the west. There are hamams in such cities as Paris, London, New York, and Vancouver.

My mom and I went to Miraj Hammam Spa in Vancouver when she came to visit. We were looking and for a different kind of spa; and found that Miraj Hammam offered an authentic hamam experience, and an enchanted trip to the Middle East.

We arrived, checked in, and were assigned lockers in the small well-appointed change room. After a shower we wrapped ourselves in the provided sarongs and were guided to a candlelit, marble steam room, with a vaulted ceiling. Here we were able to relax on warm marble slabs and absorb the gentle steam as little dancing flames illuminated it.

Before long, our estheticians came to give us a gommage, meaning a soft body scrub using black Moroccan exfoliating soap. Then, we rinsed, robed and went to private rooms for a massage.

Detoxified, buffed, and kneaded; we were as light as the steam that had cleaned our pours and feeling just as evanescent. We moved to the Sultana Lounge where we had tea and sweet buns while reclining on palatial day beds and drifting into a catnap. Eventually we roused ourselves and wandered back to reality.

Miraj Hammam Spa described itself as; “An exotic oasis where you can indulge yourself in traditional Middle Eastern treatments while your imagination takes you on a mystical journey into the past.” What the website doesn’t say is that every need you have has been anticipated, all efforts are made to ensure peace and privacy, and you come away rejuvenated and with a great story.

I am looking forward to going to Istanbul someday to visit a historical hamam. However, Reading Cathedrals of the Flesh, Lonely Planet excerpts, and various other travel writing, I understand that in many countries the bath attendants are not licensed massage therapy professionals. There also seem to be various types of hamans that have different operating principles regarding mixing gender, services provided, and tolerance towards tourists. So, it is a good idea to do some research, make some local friends, and ask questions before you go.


Five Essentials

Every culture has their own bathing practices and rituals and it can be hard to know what to bring with you when you try a new practice or a new place for the first time. There are five things that I will never be caught without on my first trip and though they are not always appropriate or necessary I have peace of mind knowing that I will never be stuck in an uncomfortable situation as long as I have them in my bag.

My Essentials

1. Flip-Flops

Does anyone else have a phobia of wet feet? I sure do. Feet absorb a lot when they are wet and I only want mine to absorb the good stuff. In most Hot Springs the water will be hot enough to kill off anything that might be passed around, but on the bathing decks and in saunas its anyone’s guess as to who and what has been there before you. There are some situations where flip-flops are not acceptable such at in Hot Yoga classes or at the Japanese onsen, however in most other cases they are certainly a good idea.

2. A Bathing Suit

In some cultures where bathing is segregated by gender you do not need one at all and often they are simply not allowed. For example, you may not wear a bathing suit to a Japanese onsen or a Turkish haman. In many cases most of us would prefer not to wear one when we visit hot springs that we think are in the middle of nowhere, but you never know when you will have to share the heat. So it is best to keep one handy and avoid any surprises. Most developed, mixed gender hot springs do require bathing suits, so: when in doubt bring one.

3. A Water Bottle

The heat will dehydrate you. Your body will sweat out the bad stuff, but you need to replace the good stuff. I will often drink up to 2 liters of water in just a few hours when I am at a spring or sauna. My body loves it and I feel so refreshed when I am finished. I have yet to find a place where I am not allowed a water bottle. Just be sure to fill it with fresh water before you go. There may not be potable water in more remote areas.

4. A Towel

Some places provide towels; some places rent them, and some places you are on your own. I always thought I knew how to use a towel, but when I was in Japan I discovered that I was wrong. Most onsens that charge a fee will also give you a small towel about the size of a hand towel. They call it a “decency towel.” This towel is used to cover whatever part of yourself you would most like to cover as you walk around the bathing area, but must never touch the hot spring water directly. They are also used as washcloths to clean yourself before you get in the tub, cold cloths for your head as you are sitting in the hot water, and when you are finished you wring them out and use them to dry yourself off with too. Genius! It is all you need. A hand towel does not take up much space in my bag so, if there are no other towels to be found I will, at least, have a bit of “decency.”

5. Soap

Almost every time you enter a public bathing place you are expected to wash first. Sometimes there is soap, sometimes there is none. I always pack a travel bottle of my favorite soap. It is multipurpose soap that I have used on my face, hands and body for years. I have even used it in a pinch for laundry, dishes, and washing off seats in public baths. But remember, it never acceptable to allow soap to get into hot spring water.

Put these five things in a mesh bag, so it doesn’t get smelly afterwards and you are set. Remember, you may not need all of these things all the time, so if you are unsure take your cues from the locals.

For Dreamers and Jet-Setters

Presently, I live in a city with no hot springs, and this means that pursuing my passion always requires large financial and time commitments. So, when I have an itch to soak I pour myself a bath and read about where I could be instead. Cathedrals of the Flesh by Alexia Brue is a good memoir for the tub. It’s the story of young woman’s fore into cleansing and sweating rituals worldwide.

Brue writes about her international cleansing expedition, that takes her to Turkey, Russia, Finland, and Japan. There are beautiful descriptions of her travels, and the history and culture around bathing in these countries. Most importantly, to dreamers and would-be jet-setting bathers, she is very informative about the rules, practices, and social courtesies of bathing in the present. Brue shares her ecstasies and blunders in the baths and saunas of the world, and now, I feel that I could enjoy a Russian banya or a Turkish hamam with more grace than I might have otherwise.

If you liked Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love then you will find this book is entertaining. It has all the same adventure, passion, and personal quest elements of a globe-trotting woman on a mission, but better because it is about bathing. On the other hand, if you like to stick to facts, then consider the cultural tips and travel ideas supplementary material to Internet browsing.