hamama mia! my night in a four hundred year-old hamam in antalya, turkey

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On the road in Turkey between the conservative city of Konya, with its Whirling Dervish history, and the seaside town of Kaş, I spent a night in Antalya.  Antalya is a city of approximately a half million residents, and it boasts an ancient Roman harbor, Hadrian’s Gate, the thirteenth century Yivli Minaret, and a fantastic Archeological Museum.  Just this week, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts agreed to repatriate the top half of a famous statue of Hercules to the Antalya museum, which houses the bottom half.

As I was walking along the windy streets of the old town, full of local handicrafts, local art and tourist junk, I noticed a sign for a hamam, or Turkish bath.  I had had a good experience in a hamam in Göreme working months of stress out of my right shoulder, so I thought, why not.  Further, what drew me to this particular hamam was that it had been there since 1611.

As I walked into the hamam, I was greeted by the proprietor.  The place looked quite different from the bath I had been to in Göreme; this one had a central round social sofa with Hookah pipes and Turkish coffee flowing.  It was colorful, and the walls were adorned with various textiles from the area.  The place was relatively calm, and, also unlike the hamam in Göreme, this was co-ed.

As I looked at the price range, I was confident that I knew the drill from my prior experience.  To my surprise, the first question the proprietor asked me was “would you like sexual massage?”  Caught off guard, I responded, no thank you, I don’t think my wife would approve.  Little did he know that I was referring to the relationship I have every Sunday with Christiane Amanpour on This Week [check your local ABC listings].  He probably would have approved given that she is, after all, from the region.

After I paid, I took my shoes off and was given plastic slippers and proceeded to the changing room.  There, as in other hamams, they provide you with a towel [which more resembles a small table cloth] to cover yourself after you strip down.  There was one other person in the changing room.  As I was in mid-change, standing there in my birthday suit ready to put on the table cloth [red is not my color by the way], the man in the changing room approached me.

He was at least six feet four and in his twenties, and the dark, brooding, Turkish type.  He came right up to me [remember I am still in my birthday suit] and gave me the traditional Turkish hello which is done somewhat like the European way of kissing twice, once on each side of the face, but instead of a kiss, it is a gentle head-but on each side of the head.  I knew this from a prior experience in a shop so I was not alarmed.

“Where are you from?” he asked me in broken English.

“New York City” I replied.

At that point he became so happy to meet someone from New York, he starting talking about how it was his life’s dream since he was a child to visit New York, where the Yankees are.  He expressed his disgust at what happened to the city on September 11, 2001, and then proceeded to tell me that he was a commander in the Turkish Army.  He was so proud of that fact, that he took out his wallet to show me his military ID.  I had nothing to show him, as I was still sans clothing.

I had a little more conversation with him as I put on the table cloth, and we wished each other well and he left.  I then proceeded to my next stop – the hot granite slab.  I entered a room with a large circular heated granite slab in the center and was told to lay there and relax for ten minutes.  The room was domed, and I was alone.  I imagined it was the seventeenth century and I was stopping by on my way to meet up to the caravanserai in the Caucasus to join a long journey to Persia.

Just then, a large and solid Turkish wrestler-type came in and began the initial hamam regimen of the body scrub followed by the soap massage.  When I say that this guy was rough, I am not kidding.  If there were any kinks left in my legs they were pounded into submission.  As he saw me wince while he was tenderizing my thigh muscles he smiled and I couldn’t help but laugh.  The entire experience thus far was funny to me.

After the torture was over, I stood up and two young Turkish women poured cold water over me to get rid of the soap and cool me down.  One of them said, “you will visit me later?” to which I replied with the wife story again.

I proceeded back to the public area and sat and had some tea while I awaited the last piece of the hamam experience – the oil massage.  During this time, I saw a lot of activity, people coming and going, and was taking in the surroundings, keeping in mind that the structure I was sitting in was four hundred years old.

I was then asked to enter a massage room, which was no bigger than ten feet by six feet, with a massage table in the center.  A girl entered the room, petite with long black hair, and said hello in Turkish and began the massage.  Compared to the Turkish wrestler guy and the massage I had gotten in Göreme, I could hardly feel her touch.

I was curious about who this girl was, so I began asking her if she spoke any other languages.  I wasn’t even sure she was Turkish at this point.  English? No.  Francais? No.  Italiano? No.  Espanol? No.  I then figured that she must be from Eastern Europe, so I asked her in Russian if she spoke Russian.  She just laughed and shook her head no.  It struck me that she was not one of the erotic massage girls, but was probably an intern or newbie that was assigned to the unknowing tourist.

As the massage ended, I got up, said thank you in four languages, and proceeded back to the changing room.  There, I was greeted by a few more army men, who all gave me the traditional greeting, each after the other, but were remiss in showing me their identification.

I left the hamam with a less than fulfilled physical experience vis a vis relaxation but with an interesting story – a story that is now etched in the walls of the four hundred year-old hamam, along with the thousands of other stories before it.

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