For those of you who don’t know, a hamam is a traditional Turkish bath. It is a highly recommended attraction in the most travel guide books, and a must for locals. Since we now lie somewhere in between, I thought it was high-time I’d try one. A week and 2 visits later, I consider myself a connoisseur (border line addict) of the Turkish bath house.
The first time I went, was to Suleymaniye hamam, near the grand bazaar – or so we were told… After finally orienting ourselves with help of several very kind locals, we finally found it (45 minutes late, and at least a mile for the actual grand bazaar, by the way). The hamam was adjacent to the Suleymaniye Mosque, as they often are built in the 1557 by the famous architect Mimar Sinan, for the Sultan Suleiman. It was one of the nicest baths of Istanbul with its domes and geometrically aligned chimneys.
The bath house is actually a Roman concept carried over when Byzantium was made a part of a Roman Province. At that time, however, one could also visit a gym, enjoy a cafe, browse though a library – all at a bathhouse! The Roman social bath house combined with the Muslim tradition of cleansing the body before prayer, or rather a manifestation of cleansing the soul through prayer. This is why traditional hamams are almost always in congruence with mosques.
That being said, this place was very traditional. Attendants were dressed in fezzes and other Turkish garb, and the interior looked like a snapshot in history. Colorful pillows scattered along the periphery of the original ‘atrium’ interior with hand carved wood changing cabins. Most hamams provide you with some optional covering, though most natives go ‘au-naturale’ and most tourists bring their own swim suits. At Suleymaniye, they provided a super fashionable complimentary his and hers matching flannel swimsuit.
The typical bath experience goes as follows… starting off on a large heated marble slab. The room is like a sauna, making it hard to breath at first. The idea is to lay on the marble and sweat out your toxins. You relax in this communal area for about 45 minutes before being called back individually to a niche of the centrally organized, dome room. Then workers continuously douse themselves in lukewarm water to stay standing in the sweltering humidity. Using exfoliating mittens they scrub your body and remove a shocking amount of dead skin, followed by a rinse in lukewarm water. Next, a pan of soapy water appears with this crazy rag-thing that I can most closely compare with a pillow case. The attendants soak in the soapy water and then open it and blow a little air into it. They then close the opening and push the air out the fabric, creating an obscene amount of foam and bubbles. Once, you are buried in this stuff, a head to toe massage takes place.
(I apologize for the googled images, but cameras aren’t allowed past the lobby for obvious reasons)
After this, you are welcomed back to the marble slab, and invited to stay as long as you would like. There’s also another room where you can sit and enjoy a çay or fresh fruit juice. In the second hamam I went to (çemberlitas), there’s also a jacuzzi and pool! Once you decide you are finished (which can be very hard to do) you are wrapped up head to toe is fresh Turkish linens and guided to the pillow-y lounge area.
I would agree that the Hamam is a must when visiting Turkey. Not only is it reasonably priced, but also its a traditional experience that is extremely well-preserved. There are more contemporary bath houses, like the other I mentioned, Cemberlitas, that can be more comfortable for the uncomfortable tourist. However, I think submersing yourself in such an ancient (foamy) tradition is thrilling and worth every kurus!
I learned from the great oracle, Rick Steves, that less than 200 years ago, a woman could reasonably demand a divorce if her husband did not finance two public bath house visits per week. This makes perfect sense to me. Why is this not still a rule?