Hydrotherapy spas have been cropping up all over New York and Los Angeles, but the Turks have been steaming and stewing in hot water for a thousand years. At the Richmond Nua Spa on sublime Lake Sapanca—the Hamptons of Turkey—I hesitated before signing up for a full Turkish bath treatment. My previous hammam experience in Morocco was awful, involving six quivering naked ladies pretending to enjoy a brutal, communal scrubbing in a moldy underground spa dungeon. I hoped this one—in the birthplace of the ritual—wouldn’t be as mortifying.
Here’s what happened when I explored the traditional scrub-down.
Step 1: Steam
Pre-hammam, I was advised to raise my body temperature a bit, so I waded into the Osman Steam Bath, a reproduction of those used six hundred years ago by sultans. It was heated to a lung-compressing 120 degrees, with 90 percent humidity. Gasping for breath, I forced myself to stay in there as long as possible to get the alleged health benefits—clear sinuses, debloating and improved circulation. Two minutes later, I crawled out bright red, glistening and ready for a bath.
Step 2: Sluice
Kenon, my hamman attendant, was a large, hairy Turk who would soon be the only man (save for my husband and doctor) to see me naked in ten years. “I don’t speak English,” he said when we met. Fine by me. During the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, attendants in the sultan’s baths were strong and silent to the extreme, having been relieved of their tongues (as well as other key body parts). Kenon led me to a private (thank God) hammam antechamber and instructed me to strip and fix a thin cotton cloth called a peshtemal under my arms. Kenon wore one too, over his hips. I’m happy to report these attendants are no longer made to be eunuchs.
I entered the hammam, a 95-degree circular room with gray marble walls, a domed ceiling and an octagonal marble table in the center. I lay face-up on a towel on the heated slab. Kenon untied my peshtemal, leaving me completely exposed except for a tiny washcloth draped over my bits. I had a flash of “I’m naked here!” self-consciousness, but that dissolved when Kenon poured hot water from a copper bowl all over me.
Step 3: Exfoliation
Kenon put on a hand-woven course cotton mitt called a kese and scrubbed every inch of my body—and I do mean every inch. I thought I was clean going in, having showered and steamed beforehand, but Kenon sloughed off deeply embedded grime and rolls of old skin. The theory is, once the dead layer is removed, your pores are wide open and gushing out toxins. If nothing more, I lost a pound of withered cells (truly, it was appalling). The scrub—aggressive but relaxing—increased circulation to the surface of my skin, kick-starting new skin cell production. I rolled onto my belly and Kenon exfoliated my back. Bliss.
Step 4: Foam Massage
After filling what looked like a pillowcase with soapy bubbles, Kenon covered me with a blanket of thick foam and vigorously massaged my back, legs and tush. The massage, I was told, would squeeze out bloat, reduce cellulite and ease tense muscles. I rolled over, was covered again in foam and massaged on my front side, including parts that I know for sure are not comprised of knotty muscles. Harem houris were bathed, shaved and massaged twice a day by eunuchs to be clean, calm and at the ready to be summoned. So my husband should be grateful that I was getting the human car wash treatment, right? When I came out, I’d sparkle and have that great new skin smell.
Step 5: Lather
Since I’d all but melted onto the slab, Kenon had to help me to sit upright before shampooing my hair and rubbing my scalp with his trademark powerful gentleness. Before rinsing, he filled the copper bowl and asked me to touch the water. It was ice cold. He asked, “Is okay?”
For a second, I thought I was supposed to drink it. I nodded and he dumped it over my head. I screamed like he’d come at me with a scimitar. He doused me three times with the freezing cold water to close up my freshly scrubbed pores. My yelps and howling laughter echoed in the circular room. I tingled brain-to-toes, high on ice.
Step 6: Afterglow
Back in the antechamber, Kenon wrapped me in a towel and dried me off. I stared at him with a goofy grin, having fallen madly in love, and kept beaming and blinking for an awkward few seconds before realizing that the treatment was over. When you’ve felt like a sultan’s wife, even for 30 minutes, the return to reality can be jarring. To ease the transition, I slipped into the spa’s salt-infused Jacuzzi and slowly, happily bubbled back to reality.