I laid there motionless on the warm marble table watching the drops of water fall from the holes carved into the ceiling dome.
The only thing between myself and the outside world was the cotton of the towel wrapped around my waist. The only thing allowed to be worn inside of the bath.
Photo by Sunrise Odyssey (CC)
In Turkey, very few things feel as old school “Turkish” as the venerated Hammam, the local bathhouse, and gathering place over the centuries.
These days, however, they are not nearly as popular, be it the ubiquity of showers and baths in people’s homes or the changing of habits of the local populace. But you’ll still see locals come, some of those older stoic members of society who prefer the old style baths and of course, tourists like myself who want to try to “experience” everything a country has to offer.
Now I’ve been to a few hammams in my life, from various towns around Turkey or within a variety of cities in Europe and the Middle East. Most of them are based on the original idea from the Turks who during the reign of the Ottomans spread their culture and their bathhouses to far areas of their empire.
But as with anyone, there is something about experiencing this activity in the seat of the old kingdom, Istanbul.
Photo by Ali Ruukel (CC)
History of the Baths
Baths here predate the existence of the Ottoman empire and even Islam in this region of the world. The current iteration of Hammams is the Islamic version of the old Roman Baths that used to inhabit the landscape when this city was formerly Constantinople, one of the great Roman cities and capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Turks, however, brought with them their own versions of bathing and bath culture and mixed these with the local bathing tradition after the conquest of the city in the 15th century. Bathing in Turkish and Islamic tradition is considered something of great importance, particularly as part of ablution prior to prayers. In this regard, you often see Turkish Hamams either connected with or near to Islamic Mosques (Camii in Turkish).
In the early days bathhouses were the exclusive domain of men but as time went out separate bathhouses (or separate hours) were constructed for women to take part in the public bathing traditions. However, unlike bathing traditions in other parts of the world (or even in current times) the baths were strictly gender segregated.
The Bathing Tradition
As it goes, the current baths still have many rituals to them.
You are lead into the large main room of the bath, where I find myself lying on the hot stone slab awaiting the masseuse to come and begin the cleansing ritual.
You lie on the slab waiting for the sweat to open the pores and start sweating out the toxins on the hot slab. A bit of a steam room type experience (although many hammams have separate steam rooms and saunas).
The masseur then takes a kese (or mitt) and begins to slowly scrub your body all around to remove the dead skin cells. Some of them are a bit more “abusive than others” in terms of how hard they push. I’ve had one of the masseurs take pride in displaying how much skin he actually removed. Something I probably could have done without.
Following the kese, they bring out a pail of soap and water and a long cloth that they use to create foam and then soap up and massage your body. You are then doused with hot water to wash away any dirt and skin still lingering.
Often in many hammams, a massage follows this part, often right on the stone slap in the chamber. Sometimes these are a bit more painful, as in some of the bigger hammams I’ve been a bit manhandled here by my masseur. I think for them there is a bit of a “masochistic pleasure” in roughing you up a bit. Not all hammams are like that, but perhaps I’m told, it would not be an “authentic” experience without it.
Photo by Assedo2011 (CC)
In some of the pricier hammams, you’ll often get to wander and clean off and sit in various hot and cold rooms following any services you’ve purchased. In some of my favorite hammams, I’ve been served cold drinks (such as hibiscus tea) which really hit the spot inside the hot chambers.
Afterwards you return to your locker room to redress and often enjoy some tea or other light beverages.
Generally, afterwards, I’m probably the cleanest and most relaxed I’ve been in a very long time. Definitely worth the experience for those who haven’t tried. A warning though is that they can become a bit “addicting” and you might find yourself back often.
Where to go
Istanbul has no shortage of Hammams from the glitzy to old neighborhood ones. Often the more locals ones will be tough for a tourist to visit who doesn’t know his or her way or the language. Many of the hotels have “hammam” experiences, but they certainly pale in comparison to the “real thing”. Some of the ones worth trying.
This is the ultimate in Hamam experiences. This one was a renovation of the old Aya Sofia (Hagia Sofia) Hamam. It is not cheap but it is certainly the high point of luxury. From beautiful marble to gold-plated bowls it almost feels a bit too luxurious. Prices range from 55 € to 140 €.
One of the oldest and most beautiful Hammams in the city, the Cemberlitas is a historic hammam built by the legendary architect Sinan in the 16th Century. A beautiful building and generally good “touristy” hammam experience. While in the neighborhood be sure to out the beautiful Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi nearby for tea and hookah (or even just the tea).
Located behind the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), this hammam has definitely seen better days but overall is still a good experience. Certainly a more reasonably priced experience than most of the other nearby hammams. It is definitely worth splurging a bit extra for the massage. The women’s section is unfortunately woefully inadequate, so women may want to try somewhere else.
Made famous by being included in the 1000 places to see before you die, this play certainly gets a high number of tourists. It is also my first ever hammam experience in Turkey or anywhere else. Service is not cheap, about 50 € but rather that is in line with a lot of the other “touristy” hammams. The building itself is historic (built in the 18th century) and quite beautiful inside as well. Worth the trip if you are ok with the inflated prices. I’ve heard though that service may have declined a bit over the years.