We entered the Turkish bathhouse in Istanbul with a degree of trepidation. Despite my best attempts at prior research, we really weren’t sure what to expect of a traditional Turkish hamam. FAQs on websites only cover off so many things…like Are there lockers? What are the opening hours? Not, it seems: How naked do I need to get? Will my kids hate me for this experience? What exactly do you mean by ‘scrub’?
However, a visit to a hamam is one of those ‘must-do’ Istanbul experiences, so we were game.
The culture of Turkish hamam (steam baths) dates back to the Ottoman Empire. They were generally annexed to mosques and provided the means for the ritual cleansing that is a part of the Muslim faith. They were also places to gather socially.
After the Ottomans conquered the Byzantines in 1453, they fully embraced using the architecture of hamam as a display of the Sultan’s wealth and power. No expenses were spared, even in the public baths, and many of these baths in Istanbul are still functional and in use today.
The hamam we visited – the Çemberlitaş Hamamı – was built by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan in 1584, and is stunning. The complex is roofed with multiple large domes supported by columns. The walls and floors of the steam rooms are lined with a streaky grey marble and the domes are dotted with small glass openings.
Originally, public hamam were men’s only locations, while each harem (the separate part of a Muslim household reserved for wives, concubines, and female servants) would have its own hamam, for the women to use. Nowadays, men and women can both use the same public hamam, although they bathe in separate rooms (or at separate times/days at smaller hamam).
We knew all of this information up front. What we didn’t know was exactly what would happen once we walked though the door.
After speaking with the receptionist and choosing our package (scrubbing, bubbles and Sultan’s bath) the girls and I were ushered one way, while The Poolboy went off in the other direction.
In our hands we had a package containing a red and white checked peştemal (a cotton cloth a bit like a large teatowel), a bath mitt, soap and a pair of black underpants.
We were pointed up some stairs in the direction of a changing area with lockers, where we changed into the black undies and wrapped the red and white peştemal around ourselves sarong-style. We also collected a pair of rubber slippers from a basket to put on our feet, and locked all our clothes and belongings into a locker, the key for which went on band around my wrist.
By this stage, the girls were looking very dubious about the experience.
Through a charade of hand signals, and the checking of our tokens, we were steered into an ante-room attached to the domed steam room, and when we stood there looking bewildered, some other patrons indicated we should go through the door.
So through the door we went, into the stunningly beautiful domed steam room, which was awash with women wearing only their black undies. Women reclining on the heated marble platform in the centre, women being scrubbed by attendants, women tipping plates of cool water over themselves at one of the basins around the room.
The attendants wore a ‘uniform’ of black undies and black bras, but some of them saw the bras as optional and had them around their waists. And let’s just say, that some of these women were on the largish side, so there was a reasonable amount of jiggling and swinging as they vigorously scrubbed the patrons.
The Impossible Princess muttered to me, “I don’t know where to look”.
We sat on the heated marble platform, with our peştemals prudishly remaining tightly around us. After about 15 minutes of heating up, three attendants came and took us by the hands, leading us to spare spots on the platform where they indicated we should lie down. They whipped our peştemals from us and spread those out to lie on.
They took to us with kese (rough mitts) for a massage which stripped layers of skin off (they gleefully showed us the evidence), followed by a generous tossing of water over our bodies. They then created a mountain of bubbles with a washcloth for the foam massage, which involved being massaged and scrubbed with foamy bubbles until every inch of your body (including hair) practically squeaked.
After another sluicing with tepid water at one of the basins, we were on our own to soak in the hot (31 degree) baths attached to the domed steam room. By this stage our peştemals were foamy and soaked, and had been tossed by our attendants into the laundry chute, so any pretence of covering up was long gone. We wandered between the steam room, the hot baths and the ante-room to exit, wearing just the black undies. In the ante-room, we found ourselves some fresh towels to wear back to the changerooms.
I did wonder exactly how traumatising this entire experience would be for Queenie and The Impossible Princess, and how long it would be before they forgave me…but they can laugh about it now.
Certainly an experience which will be talked about for many years to come.
Vezirhan Cad. No: 8, 34440
Çemberlitaş / İstanbul
Ph: +90-212-522 79 74, 212-520 18 50