March 22, 2016. “Looking for a true Turkish experience? Try a public hammam,” advised Rick Steves’ guidebook. Many of our colleagues had also raved about their own bathhouse visits, so we’d booked a reservation to try one out. Rick listed two options: traditional segregated establishments, where men and women bathe in separate quarters and are pampered by members of their own sex. Or more modern coed facilities, where husbands and wives bathe together but are served only by male attendants.
Now before this begins sounding too kinky for a PG audience, let me just explain that when I say “served,” I don’t mean the kind of “happy-endings massage” or gay sex club most of us Westerners associate with the term “Turkish Bathhouse.” These places provide tame, conventional amenities that include a half-hour steam in a sauna, followed by a rough scrub down and a quick, professional massage.
Matthew and I are all for trying out any local experience. But after learning that, in segregated facilities, clients typically spend the day completely in the raw, we decided to go with the more touristy but swimsuit-wearing coed option. It’s not that we’re prudes: it’s just that it sounds too much like a nightmarish flashback to my 7th-grade gym class.
Remember those days, when schoolgirls had to shower together? The communal situation provided ample opportunities for more physically mature specimens of femininity to make fun of those who lagged behind on the growth curve. Sadly, in my case, nature never did make up for lost time. So the idea of fraternizing with a bunch of well-rounded Turkish women while I awkwardly inhabited my pathetically under-endowed frame didn’t seem like fun.
In the end, we opted for the Süleymaniye Hamami, not only for it’s clothed, co-ed status, but also for its history. Süleyman the Magnificent commissioned famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan to design and construct the hamam in 1557 as part of the Süleymaniye Mosque complex. The opportunity to experience a traditional Turkish bath in an ancient building once inhabited by sultans seemed too awesome to refuse, so off we went.
Getting to the hamam proved to be a rather hair-raising experience. We climbed into a taxi whose youthful driver sat chatting through the window to an older man. Upon hearing our destination, the two looked at each other, then the younger man got out of the car and went around to sit in the passenger-side front seat, while the older man took the wheel.
“What the heck was happening?,” we wondered, as the driver soon began zipping through run-down back alleys and taking crazy turns that included driving in reverse down one-way streets. This being the day after the Taxim Square attack, our nerves were shot and our imaginations ran riot. Were we being hijacked for ransom or other nefarious purposes?
Matthew began frantically making note of landmarks while I nervously questioned the guy about where we were going. In broken English, he told us that the younger man (his grandson) was new to cab-driving, so he was showing him the best way to get there.
Methinks grandpa was merely teaching junior how to fleece the tourists, because as it turns out, the “best way” was extremely circuitous and about twice as expensive as it should have been. We’d realized we’d forgotten Rule #1 about cabbing it in any city: agree on a price before getting in the car.
Anyway, we pulled up in front of the hamam, which, from the outside appeared about as shabby as the surrounding neighborhood. But considering that the structure was almost 500 years old, we were willing to give it a break. So we ventured inside to the cool stone foyer where a fez-wearing attendant greeted us cheerfully.
He ushered us into the reception room, which in itself was a bit of a surprise. A two-story space capped by a dome, the main floor hosted a fountain filled with rose petals. Hookah pipes perched on little tea tables scattered in front of a banquette that lined the perimeter of the room. In one corner of the first floor, and all along the upper balcony, ran a series of partitioned stalls. The whole thing matched my mental picture of what a cozy opium den should look like.
An attendant provided us each with a pair of madras cotton shorts, a bikini top for me, wooden clogs/sandals known as nalın, and a peştemal (a large towel that can also be used like a sarong), then ushered us into one of the stalls to change. Properly attired, we sauntered out in our finery and followed the attendant into the historic sıcaklık — what the Romans called the caldarium (“hot room”). This whole concept of elaborate bathing houses dates back to Roman times, by the way.
We doused ourselves with bowls of warm water as instructed, then the attendant indicated that we should seat ourselves on the göbek taşı (“tummy stone”) at the center of the room. A giant slab of marble heated from below, the “tummy stone” is tolerably hot when you’re sitting along the bench-like edge, but when lying in the middle, you feel a bit like a frying flapjack waiting to be flipped. We lay there long enough to satisfy the attendant, but as soon as he left, we scampered up to snoop around the room.
The floor and lower portion of the walls were made of gorgeous, striated marble. Eight stone columns supported a domed brick-and-plaster ceiling studded with little bell-shaped glass jars that let sunlight filter in. The overall effect created an almost cave-like feel to the room and gave it the echoing resonance I associate with ancient sacred spaces.
A series of semi-private niches marched side-by-side along the walls, set apart in the corners by Arabesque arches. Each niche possessed a shell-shaped marble basin that held an embossed tin bowl. Two filigree faucets, oddly stacked one over the other, provided hot and cold running water. A tub of suds filled with bars of heavenly-smelling soap sat tucked beneath a marble shelf that I could only conclude was meant as a massage table.
Having explored the space thoroughly, we eventually had no choice but to try and enjoy the experience. I’m making it sound like a chore, but to two people with rabidly frenetic natures, lying around attempting to “relax” is about as painful as going to the dentist’s office. We find it well nigh impossible to sit there doing nothing, especially while someone inflicts pain for our own good.
I tried to occupy my mind by wrapping my head around the concept that I was now lounging where sultans and their friends and families had hung out naked for centuries. And I counted my blessings that we seemed to be the only couple interested in participating in a traditional Turkish bath that afternoon. (Probably the attack the day before had discouraged folks from venturing out.)
Reclining on the hot stone slab, I watched the steam drift lazily through the room and listened to the pipes hiss. The tranquility of the place gradually began to sink into my pores. Soon I scooted to the center of the tummy stone and began building up a serious sweat. After about 20 minutes of torturous torpor for Matthew, he got antsy and went to see “if we could get this show on the road.” The attended responded, “in another 20 minutes.” I began to realize how a woman of the harem might feel a bit caged, no matter how spa-like her surroundings.
The drip, drip, drip of water trickling down the stone walls eventually had a soporific affect. Right around the time my mind had finally stopped racing and my eyes had drifted shut, two boxer-clad tellak (masseurs) came in for Phase II of the treatment. One guy was a greying, rather paunchy man in his 60s, while the other was a handsome, buff young lad of no more than 20. With a wink, the older man indicated he’d be the one scrubbing me down so “husband not get jealous.”
The attendants led us to a “corner booth” that seemed to be equipped for couples, as there were two of everything: marble massage tables, stone basins, and washing bowls. The men had us sit on a low step next to the wash basins, then used the tin bowls to dip out warm water and rinse off our sweatiness. Wringing out towels of warm soapy water over us, the men began scrubbing away with raw-silk mittens called kese. I guess these guys must’ve worked up quite a sweat sloughing off our Scandinavian-dry skin, because periodically they’d stop to dump cool water over their own heads.
A quick hot-water rinse after the exfoliation left us as red-n-shiny as roasted pigs, then our attendants indicated that we should lie down on the marble shelves for Phase 3. First, the men worked up a good froth in the buckets of soapy water. Then they wrung out the towels to distribute quite an astonishing amount of foam all over our bodies. We lay their quietly for awhile, engulfed in clouds of bubbles that made us feel curiously weightless.
But then the massages began. I’d heard these rubdowns could be pretty rough, so I tried to remember the Turkish word for “gentle.” (It’s yavaş — yah VASH —by the way.) While the guy clearly held himself back, I still squawked “ouch” a few times — especially when he criss-crossed my arms and tried to yank my shoulders out of their sockets, then pounced on my chest, all in an attempt to crack my back.
Also a bit startling were the loud slaps he delivered periodically to my chest, back, stomach, and thighs. I’m not sure if this was to indicate he’d finished a section, or whether he was trying to scare away the evil spirits with the noise. Either way, I was fairly grateful when the massage was over. But then again, massages are another form of relaxation I haven’t yet really learned to enjoy, no matter who delivers them or where I’ve had them.
Eventually, the men led us back to the marble basins, where we sat as they washed our hair and massaged our scalp. Then they filled the tin bowls for rinsing us with what I assumed would be warm water. Not so much. Unceremoniously, my attendant dumped the icy contents over my head. I was so shocked that I gasped and sucked in a mouthful of water — a big no-no, considering that tourists are advised to drink only the bottled stuff.
As he continued rinsing me, I came out of my shock-induced coma and commenced worrying. Would I get traveler’s revenge from the water I’d swallowed? Might I sport bruises in the morning? Had the same suds bucket and kese been used on countless numbers of tourists that day? Okay, so maybe I’m a little OCD.
Rinsing complete, the attendants led us to separate rooms where we removed our wet clothing and wrapped ourselves in dry, white peştemal. We clacked back out in our wooden sandals to meet the attendants, who dried us off and draped towels over our heads and shoulders. Thus shrouded, we followed the men to the communal soğukluk, (the cool room, known in Roman times as the frigidarium).
Here we ordered apple tea and sat recovering for a bit before hopping up to examine this new space. Along the wall hung lurid paintings of naked harem ladies as envisioned by Victorian painters — who were ill-equipped with actual facts but endowed with much imagination. According to a plaque, the hamam itself had also once possessed a “bowl of Icterus” that, when used to wash the sick, miraculously healed them. I have no idea who Icterus is, but it sounds like he had a good gig going.
Eventually, an attendant led us back to our changing stall, took our payment (a reasonable 40 euros/44 dollars), and then offered us fragrant lavender water for a final face-n-hands washing. We headed out into the street, squeaky clean and ready for a the long walk home. (No more cab rides for us for awhile.) Once we made it back to the hotel, we realized that, despite it’s initial awkwardness, the experience had done its job. We fell into bed like two thoroughly laundered and basically boneless lumps, ready for a long nap before dinner.
But as it turns out, this wasn’t our only hamam experience on the trip. The hotel night manager, who we’d gotten to know, upgraded us to a “Premium Vizier Junior Suite” with its own private hamam for our last night. It couldn’t have come at a better time, as we were sore and exhausted from hiking in Pamukale the previous day (more about that later.)
After a fantastic dinner at Matbah, plus hookah-smoking and Dervish dancing at a nearby club (also an upcoming post), we headed back to the hotel. Turns out, a private hamam is almost as good as the public bath. Although it’s hard to get the same level of sudsing, loofah-ing, and serious massaging, it’s pretty awesome to just sit and soak up the heat with no anxiety about overexposure.
In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we’ve decided to try and re-create the experience back in Oslo. We bought hamam soap, an antique tin washing bowl, and two silk peştemal at the bazaar. We hope that if we crank up our bathroom’s heated tile floors, we’ll get the same effect. But would I do the public hamam experience again in Istanbul? In a heartbeat. Now that I know what to expect, I’ll enjoy it more, and I figure it’s one more step toward learning how to relax properly.