Touched to Tears in Turkey

I laid naked on steaming marble surrounded by soapy women waiting to be selected by black underwear clad attendants, who were about to perform a healing and ancient ritual that came to Turkey with the Ottomans.  I could not help wondering if this was what a Harem would have been like in the days when the Sultans ruled and built the Turkish Hammam I was in.  The air was charged with an exotic and sensuous vibe seemingly out of character for the conservative country of Turkey.  To my surprise and delight I was about to embark on one of the most spiritual experiences of my life while getting a massage from a woman I only know by her nickname “Momma Bear”.

Trashed Tired in Turkey.

The plane ride from Heathrow, London was eventful.  Air turbulence crossing the pond was followed by chaos in the terminal.  We witnessed 4 burly Brits with billy clubs subdue a Turkish patriot trying to escape immigration.  In addition, my travel companion Antoinette and I got caught up in customs.  We did not have a clear understanding of the strict rules of Britain’s version of TSA, and lost a chunk of our personal belongings to the airport trash cans.  By the time we arrived in Istanbul, Turkey we were trashed tired.  To make matters worse, I did not calculate the time change correctly, and reserved our hotel on the wrong date.  So as you can imagine, by the time we were able to check into another hotel, we were ready to “check out” for a few hours.   

When in Rome?

No way.  We were in Turkey and it was time to relax Ottoman style in a Turkish Bath.  Hey, if travel is supposed to be about cultural immersion, why not be a Sultan once in a while, right?  We grabbed our new set of room keys and hit the road and arrived at the Suleymaniye Hammam in the center of Istanbul.  Hammam is the Turkish word for bath or spa, and this particular one is of historical importance, created by Sultan Suleymaniye.  The link to their website is here

Suleymaniye Mosque

We arrived at Suleymaniye Hammam double checking the address.

We expected a grand entrance to the hammam.   Sultan Sulimaniye  built this spa in the 1500’s and much of Istanbul for that matter.  The buildings are designed for beauty as well as function and the Istanbul skyline is indelibly his.  For this reason we were surprised to find a rather plain door and small plaque marking the address on a typical city street.  It gave no hint of what lay behind the entrance. 

Still unsure of ourselves, we opened the door and found ourselves inside a domed room with filtered light from above.  Instead of the stone walls normally visible in ancient domed buildings, the curved ceilings and walls were overlaid with exquisite carpentry and the floor was carpeted.   The place was packed.   Some patrons were sweaty from the steam rooms in route to one of the many spa treatments offered, and others were sipping tea in robes on comfortable loungers. 

The front desk receptionist took our money, handed us locker keys, a bath towel and pair of thick wooden clogs.   My hope for an explanation of the clogs was cut short by her hurried instructions that we were to enter the steam room and wait to be selected by an attendant.  She reiterated: “We don’t assign you a therapist, and it’s not first come first serve.  The attendant (Turkish: Natir for a female) picks the person they want to work with.   You might be selected quickly, or you may wait a long time.  You’ll just have to see what happens and be patient.”

Turkish Hamams are gender divided for services, the attendants are same sex and everyone is naked. 

After stripping down to our birthday suits, we hobbled in wooden clogs to a second lobby.  The second lobby is a marble steam room with stone benches that serves as waiting room until space in the actual bath house area opens up and allows the body to adjust to the increasing levels of heat in the various treatment areas.    

The clogs were precarious, and I’m glad I got to wear them.

The clogs are a part of Turkish history that Suleymaniye Hammam is preserving in spite of being discarded from use in most of Turkey.  Traditionally the clogs or “nalin” were used to elevate women and children’s feet from the dirty, soapy floors.  In the day of the Sultans, the height of the clog and level of ornamentation  indicated a woman’s social status.  For me, they felt a little dangerous to walk on since the steam room floors were slippery.  Maybe the Turkish ladies of the Sultanate would have felt the same as our stilettos today. 

Two clogged feet through the door of the main treatment area, and I was hydroplaning.  The floors of the main bath were covered in suds that converted our wooden shoes to skates!  The slipperiness caused by condensation on the  floors of the steam waiting room we had been in was taken to a new level in the bath house section.  The slick marble floors were soaked in soapy water because the treatments being offered in this area were actually a form of bathing and cleaning combined with massage.

Needing a moment to collect ourselves, Antoinette and I grabbed a wall for balance while our bodies acclimatized to the heat and our vision adjusted to the steam.

We politely averted our eyes because of the nudity, but couldn’t resist looking again because the scene was so exotic.  This must be what a harem looked like.

Dead center was a pile of naked women squeezed together on a lovely dark marble platform.  The platform was huge.  There must have been a hundred women laying on it.  The bodies were gorgeous against the backdrop of the bath house which is in and of itself is opulently beautiful.  Light from sky portals and steam from hidden chimneys filtered and reverberated against curved stone ceilings and walls, giving the entire room an otherworldly feel. 

The fire below.

We came to find out later that many hammams have a fire underneath them.   The room that houses the flame is called a “Kulhan” and the heat produced there is funneled through channels inside walls which exits through chimneys and converts to steam upon hitting the humidity of the bath area. Suleymaniye Hammam Outside of Turkish Bath

Standing room only.

Antoinette and I  scoured the marble elevation for a space to place ourselves.  The platform (gobektasi) was loaded and we wound up on opposite sides of the room.   The moist heat emanating from the marble began to work it’s magic on the back of my legs and spine as I stared at the ceiling.  I dosed off as the surrounding warmth, sounds of splashing water, whispered phrases in foreign tongues and herbal infusions wafted past my nostrils. 

Ever been the last one picked for dodgeball?

Eventually activity around me broke my nap and I looked for Antoinette.  I  spotted the edge of her body over a menagerie of legs and arms that partly blocked my vision.  I had slept for so long, that I didn’t realize that her treatment was actually over, and she was just hanging around waiting for me to finish mine.  I hadn’t even been selected yet.

Soap sud massage from above at Turkish bathI was in a european sandwich, and it was no accident.

The activity that broke my peace was from a few attendants who had made their way over to the women close to me.  They were moving the women they selected and trying to push me out of the way.  Body parts were careening into mine.   There was an elbow in my ear, a foot on my arm and a thigh on my shin.   

I didn’t know it at the time, but Antoinette was watching the whole thing.  She said that the attendants were grabbing various European women in the area around me and it looked like my very presence was a source of resentment until Momma Bear showed up.  That was the nickname we gave the natir who stepped in to my rescue.  I finally had been selected.  She leveled the playing field by scolding and prodding the other attendants who scattered with their clientele.  Shortly thereafter,  she had one hand on my arm and one on my leg.  I was being slid to the edge of the marble gobektasi by her two strong arms.

I opened my eyes and smiled at her.  She was a woman in her 50’s who seemed to me simultaneously formidable and comforting.  Straight peppered dark hair neatly pulled back framed a lovely olive skinned face.  She wore only black underwear and her large breasts swung freely as she began to take care of me. 

The Turkish attendant’s comfort with nudity seemed out of character for the country.  Publicly, the women dress conservatively.  In fact,  Antoinette and I quickly learned to do the same while traveling there to avoid unwanted attention, but here in the hammam it was different.  People were far more comfortable with nudity than me and Antoinette, who are ironically from the “land of the free”.

Momma Bear touched our hearts.

Momma Bear had a bucket of water that she set on the platform, and a woven mitt made of fibrous material on her hand.  The mitt is called a “kese”.  Use of the kese to remove dead skin is touted to stimulate new cell growth, impede cellulite and increase general health and circulation.  Her gentle exfoliation with the mitt and soap began.  I closed my eyes because it felt so good.  The pressure was strong enough to be considered a massage, but the very nature of scrubbing also made it feel like a beauty treatment.  

A friend and client who has been to Turkish hammams described her experience as being “sexual without feeling turned on”.   What I think she was trying to express is that the treatment is extremely sensual and intimate. Maybe we don’t have a word in English to express the intensity of the pleasure and sexual is as close as we can get to expressing ourselves with words, although in essence, it was not sexual at all.

I was in an altered state.  I don’t know how long it took to complete the front of my body, but at some point she instructed me to turn over, and took care of the rest of me as tenderly as she had done the front.  The blanket of  suds she created were swept away in floods of warm water from her bucket signaling completion of the bath.

I thought we were done, but instead she gingerly woke me up, and carefully escorted across the slippery floor on my clogs to a third treatment area where Momma Bear instructed me to kneel at the base of a wall fountains.

I  was feeling very emotional and trying desperately to stop it. 

It was not travel exhaustion.  It was not the vulnerability of being nude.  It was that somehow this woman who I could not speak to, who I did not know and probably would never see again, had made me feel purely cared for with no outside agenda.  She was not my friend, relative or lover.  She was simply another human being who through the universal language of touch had made me feel a universal sense of  love and intimacy. 

She turned on the faucet above my head and began to wash my hair so tenderly that I could no longer hold back the floodgates of my tears.  I was powerfully moved by her touch.  I think my subconscious didn’t know what else to do, so I cried.  A smile just was not going to do the situation justice.  They were not tears of joy or sadness, I cried in appreciation of the beautiful gift this woman had given me. 

I can pay it forward, and say a prayer of gratitude.

What a strong and beautiful personality Momma Bear had.  I will always remember the fierce protection and gentle care she gave me, and although I can never directly repay her, I can pay it forward in my every day practice.    

She taught me that that what I am feeling inside does translate to the people that I take care of.  There are times that I’m at wits end as to what to do when I have a client in pain either emotionally or physically that does not respond to typical treatment.  I slow down and focus.  I become more gentle.  Sometimes I send a secret prayer for their healing and another prayer of gratitude for the lesson she taught me.   

A very unflattering picture of me and Antoinette being total goofballs in Turkey