I don't usually get bathed by a half-naked man I just met. But that's apparently what you do at a Turkish hamam--and frankly, I loved it. After all, Mike was right beside me, with his head and toes sticking out from under a mountain of bubbles. We were taking part in a tradition that's continued at this public bath in Istanbul, Turkey, for hundreds of years.
We were at the city's Suleymaniye Hamam, which was built in 1557 by the renowned Turkish architect Mimar Sinan for Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, who ruled the Ottoman Empire between 1520 and 1566. Outside the very room in which we bathed was a plaque that told us the Sultan had also frequently bathed there. That made our treatment seem especially royal, even when my bath attendant, or tellak, smacked me on the back and doused me with icy cold water.
I'd chosen this particular hamam not only for its history, but because it is reportedly the only one in the city that allows couples to go through the experience together--other hamams are separated by sex. At 35 euros (about $43) per person, it was also a bit less expensive than some of the other famous hamams in Istanbul.
When we arrived, we were handed plaid cotton towels, a bikini top, and a pair of shorts. The man who ushered us to the changing room said, "Man wears bikini, woman just towel," and then laughed. After changing, we both were given little wooden shoes with black straps at the toes, which clip-clopped on the marble floor as we were led to the steam room. Inside it was as hot and humid as a Nebraska corn field in the summer. The surfaces were made of pale gray marble, and light poked through holes in the domed roof. It was a beautiful place to suffer. Mike said, "This isn't very enjoyable, but I like it." I knew exactly what he meant. Even my shins were sweating, but I felt like this was a good thing.
After about 20 minutes or so, two tellak escorted us into a side room where they cooled us off with cold water, scrubbed us with a loofah, covered us with piles of bubbles, and massaged us until we were jello. My tellak also shampooed my hair. He seemed to punctuate each step with a slap, maybe to wake me up or perhaps he was just having fun. I was, too. Looking across at Mike, he seemed more relaxed than I've seen him in months. I smiled and bubbles popped on my cheeks.