Scrubbing Back the Layers: A Turkish Bath Experience in Jordan

The moment she threw off her hijab and sheepishly smiled while saying, “there are no men here now, so it’s OK,” I knew we were in for something unique.

I’d heard about Turkish baths before, but I didn’t actually have any idea what they encompassed. They were this thing that you would simply smile about, and almost embarrassingly exclaim, “of course I know what those are!”

I’m not sure if my perspective about them would be different if I had experienced them first in my home country, but having my first time take place in Wadi Musa, Jordan while on a small group tour during part of our free time — well, let’s just say the memories are still resonating in one of the most powerful ways.

Note: due to the type of experience this was, it felt more respectful to not take any photos while we were inside the bath house. I’ve instead shared some of the moments that took place in Wadi Musa on the same day, to help paint the picture of this incredible destination. 

Step 1: Things Get Steamy (Literally)

As soon as we were all in the same room together — women only, as the men’s baths were on a different level — something came to life that I can only describe as a sort of female kinship. Here we were, on our small group tour, making the most of our unscripted time — and this was really the first moment we’d been able to delve into the layers of the female experience in Jordan. You could sense this combination of excitement, relaxation, and curiosity coming over the seven women in my group as we stripped down to our swimsuits and were led by hand into a room that immediately enveloped you in a cloud of steam.

It startled me at first, never having spent much time in a sauna before, just how much it encompasses the senses. After ducking into the first initial room, we were led toward the back of the structure, and I found myself holding on to the hand in front of me as I tried to see far enough beyond the steam into the space.

Immediately upon settling onto the marble benches with my companions, shoulders and hips close enough that you could feel the heat coming off all of us, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t going to last very long in this heat. Trying to take a deep breath felt a bit like when the heat of an opened oven hits you in the face, and the sweat was streaming down my arms, legs, back; all the way down to the roots of my hair I could feel heat penetrating my pores.

Any time someone would move to a different bench, they would disappear in a cloud of steam; the effect was almost ghostly, and the room soon echoed with our laughter and conversation as we grew accustomed to the pressing temperatures — knowing that in reality this was supposed to be great for you.

Step 2: The Bare Necessities

The next part of the process is where I’m trying to hold onto the details. After about 10 to 15 minutes of sweating out toxins and whatever mild anxiety I had about saunas, we were led in smaller groups of three to the next room. While communication was limited to a smattering of words about where and how to sit, there was a sense of kindness and care in every action, in every brush of the shoulder directing your next move.

After clambering up quite ungracefully onto what I can only describe to be a marble hybrid of a vet’s exam table, the woman in front of me used a variety of gestures and words to signal that this next part would be easier — better, maybe? — if I was comfortable pulling my one-piece swimsuit down around my hips.

I clasped at my chest in what felt like a comical fashion, looking around the damp, steam-misted room, wondering if I’d heard her correctly. I mean, there were only three other women in the room with me, but we’d only met each other a few days earlier when the tour began. In any other version of this situation I might have thought to be uncomfortable, but there was such a tangible sort of peace and sense of being in this safe space enveloping the room, that it felt natural and I agreed.

Lying back on the table, I concentrated on the droplets of moisture clinging to the tile ceiling above me, as my attendant stepped to the side where a bucket of water was being scooped out in large bowls by other attendants. Collecting a bowl of her own, the attendant stepped back to my side and poured the warm, soapy water across my chest. The process was repeated twice more across my body, water sluicing away the sweat the sauna had pulled from me.

Step 3: Scrubbing Back the Layers

As I started to relax more fully on the table, a doorbell rang from outside the room and my attendant apologized for having to step away for a moment. You could tell how protective the women were of this space; slipping in and out the entrance door only when needed, and without letting any of the heat escape.

As I lay there waiting for her return, I glanced to my right and saw a fellow woman in my group on a similar table, laughing softly and murmuring to the woman working with her. It was a tender, private moment that I think only other women can fully understand, and I glanced away, closing my eyes and soaking up the sound of language unfamiliar to my ears.

My attendant returned and she had what looked to be some sort of hand-shaped loofa grasped in her fingers. She smiled at me, nodding in that universal way of, “OK, all good to proceed?” and I nodded and returned her smile. Starting on the more tender area of my belly, she began exfoliating the skin, working her way up my chest, around my neck, down my arms, legs, and curving around the soles of my feet.

The brisk yet kneading movements were equally intense yet soothing. The exfoliation around my chest had me jumping and smiling apologetically, while the skin of my outer legs conformed seamlessly to her movements.

I was turned to my stomach and similar treatment was applied to the length of my spine, reaching the arches and curves along the way. I couldn’t decide if I was being charted a bit like a map, or had become more like a turkey being prepped for Thanksgiving dinner. Either way, I saw my outer layer of skin slowly being scraped away and was content to lose myself in the experience.

Step 4: Reawakening the Spirit

Throughout the process of exfoliation, the woman who had initially greeted us by removing her hijab could be heard singing from somewhere in the room. I might not have understood the Arabic words she was vocalizing, but as the lulling melody drifted through the room, the sound seeped beneath the newly revealed layers of my skin, wrapping around my heart.

In that moment, scrubbed down and exposed in a way that transcended being mostly bare-skinned on a table, I had never felt so viscerally female. It was raw around the edges, not unlike the rest of me, but so elemental that my spirit felt reawoken.

After the exfoliation, new buckets of warm, soapy water were poured over me, and the scrubbing motions were replaced with the kneading of the muscles in my shoulders, neck, legs, hands and feet. The movements were supple, my skin and body finding solace in a place of ultimate relaxation and reflection. I rotated from my back to my front once more before being eased into a cross-legged sitting position. My attendant worked out any lingering kinks in my neck before turning me to face her and assist me off the table.

The floor was cool to the touch, and my toes curled around it as I stood, hands at my side, the details of the room coming back into focus. Two more buckets of water were brought and pored over my head. It ran through my hair, moving in rivulets down my softened body, pooling at my feet. As I stripped off the rest of my swimsuit completely and wrapped myself in the towel I was given, it occurred to me that most of my companions were now all in the room together, each with the same dazed, glowing look on their faces.

We didn’t quite know yet the words to describe what we had just experienced, but we did know it was unlike anything that had come before. Different small groups have moments that bring them together — cementing a shared experience — and that small group of women became more than just my friends in that moment; we became part of each other’s stories, our reservations scrubbed away in the heat of that bath house.

Step 5: Celebrating the Female Experience

We sat afterward in our towels in the same waiting room we’d been greeted in, sipping on tea with fresh mint leaves. There wasn’t a ton of chatter, but there was a pulse to the room that hadn’t been there before. Our host sat with us on the couches — her silver-speckled black hair frizzy around her face, water marks on her loose gray shirt; her hijab sat discarded nearby, almost like an afterthought. She encouraged us to relax and sip our tea, and her presence was a calming companion to the daze we all still seemed to be in.

Soon, we’d once again return to the lively and heat-soaked streets of Wadi Musa, but in those last few moments, we soaked up the final sips of quiet serenity like a fresh cup of Jordanian tea.

We had flushed and rejuvenated skin, yes, but if anyone were to ask me about the benefits of a Turkish bath experience, I’d lead instead with the gift of connection that it imparts. This is not an experience that allows you to hide — physically or emotionally — from yourself. It demands your vulnerabilities in a way that feels more like being asked for a hug or a warm squeeze of the shoulder. Especially as a woman, to have that opportunity to scrub away the things that often hold us back — including ourselves — you can’t ask for a more priceless gift.

Our bodies deserve as much love and self-care as the other parts of our lives that we nurture, and when we give ourselves the permission to do that, it reminds me of how a Jordanian cup of tea goes down: sweet, spicy and capable of making you believe in a little bit of magic.

Tiffany Harrison the Partnership Marketing Manager for Club Adventures, by AAA Exclusive Vacations. Club Adventures offers a lineup of small group adventure tours, helping Members to explore the world through a local lens. A firm believer in how immersive travel can change the world, Tiffany has been collecting stories and experiences ever since she hopped on a plane for the first time ten years ago to study abroad in Scotland. In her role, Tiffany supports AAA agents and members through strategic marketing efforts, helping bring to life the Club Adventures brand message.