I glared at my suitcase, not knowing what to fish out of it.
What was I supposed to bring to the bathhouse? Would I just traipse around naked? Should I bring a bathing suit? A towel? Shampoo?
Knowing what to bring to a Syrian hammam (a public bathhouse) and what to do once you get there can save you a lot of time and embarrassment.
So, before you go, follow these simple rules. I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy the carpeted wonder that is a Syrian bathhouse, but you can at least experience its steamy splendor without being the baffled, naked foreigner—I’ve already done that for you.
1. Know What You’re In For
Damascus’ hammams are a world away from American spas. Hammams are carpeted, noisy, smoky, full-contact affairs, and the atmosphere is something like a nudist colony, where everybody vaguely knows everybody else.
2. Don’t Be The Naked Woman During Man-Only Time
Syrian baths are single-sex, but most facilities serve men and women at different times of the day. Many hammams set aside one day per week exclusively for women; some dedicate a few hours on multiple days. Show up at the right time.
3. Pack Two Pairs of Undies And Some Flip-Flops
You’ll bathe in your underwear, so bring an extra post-bath pair. Throw a pair of flip-flops in your bag as well if you’re at all repulsed by the prospect of padding around in bare feet on a floor that’s used by hundreds of people per week.
4. Look For The Hanging Carpet
As you approach the bathhouse, you’ll see a heavy piece of carpet hanging in the doorframe. Push it aside and enter. You’ll find a large, domed room in which every possible surface is draped with damp rugs. Women in various states of undress will be eating, smoking, praying, sipping tea, or corralling screaming and running children.
5. Spring For The Total Package
Find the woman in charge. She will ask you what package you want to purchase—the full bathing package usually includes a bath, a scrub, a massage, and tea for about $10. (You can also order items a la carte.) Go for the total package.
Also, never cross this woman or break her rules. If you do, she will dispense rough, cigarette-smoking justice upon you while wearing nothing but her underwear.
6. Strip Down In The Lobby
There’s no changing room, so change in the lobby and abandon your clothes in a heap on the least moist patch of carpet you can find. If you neglected to bring a pair of flip-flops or a towel, just ask the bath attendant to borrow one. She will lend you a pair of gargantuan wooden slippers and a ripped sheet that has seen much better days.
7. Approach The Steam Machine At Your Own Peril
Follow the trail of steam emanating from the corner of the lobby and enter the bathing area. Start with the steam room, which you’ll locate by the hissing and clanging of a steaming machine that looks like it will explode at any moment. Sit next to it.
8. Cover Yourself In Suds
Retreat to the tiled bathing room to soap up and wash your hair. Women congregate around the faucets, so keep your distance from them if you don’t want hair dye and shampoo flung in your face.
9. Get Scrubbed Like You’ve Never Been Scrubbed Before
Find your bath attendant and signal to her that you’re ready for your scrub. She will exfoliate every exposed inch of your skin with a swatch of material made of something between a rough natural loofah and a metal Brillo pad. You’ll see layers of filth—and maybe even some skin you wanted to keep—being washed away.
10. Test Your Pain Threshold With A Massage
Head to a small room with a massage table that looks like it’s been there since the days when Damascus was part of the Roman Empire. Lay your towel beneath you and clamber onto the table. You’ll be handled by the masseuse, who will display a concept of entitlement over your body that you have never experienced before.
11. Don’t Fall Naked Onto Your Masseuse
The masseuse will signal that the massage is over with a soapy and unexpected slap on your stomach. She will have used generous quantities of soapy water during the massage, so descend carefully from the table. Don’t slip and fall on her (as I did).
12. Enjoy A Cup Of Tea
Now fully cleaned, shroud yourself in a towel. Walk up a few steps to one of the recessed balcony areas, and enjoy a cup of tea on the driest patch of carpet you can find.
13. Venture into the Old City
Congratulations! You’ve just survived your first hammam experience. Celebrate by exploring the vibrant labyrinth that is the Old City market. If you don’t like the smell of the cigarette smoke that has seeped into your skin and hair in the hammam, take another bath when you get home.
Have you visited a similar bathhouse abroad? How was your experience? Please share in the comments.