Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
Scraped Clean In Istanbul
With some trepidation I entered the doorway marked by a bold sign announcing this was one of the “1,000 Places To See Before You Die”. While visiting an authentic Turkish Hammam was definitely on my bucket list, nevertheless having heard stories of brawny masseurs, and having no facility in the Turkish language, I wondered if I would survive this adventure with bones intact. Not to worry, while the Hammam has a long history of aggressive treatment in Ottoman culture, its current clientèle consists mainly of international tourists looking for an authentic “Turkish” experience and bone crunching is definitely no longer in fashion.
I was entering Caĝaloĝlu Hammami, the most beautiful Turkish bath in Istanbul and the bucket list reference was the result of its inclusion in the well known eponymous book by Patricia Schultz that is subtitled “A Traveler’s Life List”. Caĝaloĝlu Hamami was commissioned by Sultan Mehmet I in 1741 as a gift to the city. The beautifully detailed building with high domed ceilings, internal marble fountains, interior garden, and two levels of individual changing chambers, is still an architectural delight. Built in the center of the old city, Caĝaloĝlu is near the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace and is a good place to refresh after a day of sightseeing and exploring.
Currently the men’s and women’s sections are separated by a long hallway and even when I was shown-in by a young man, he stood a few feet away from the doorway to the women’s quarters and shouted for a female attendant to come get me. Of course in the old days the women had special visiting times or days and would not bathe in the same building with men.
Men visited the Hammam for ritual cleanliness and to network on a business level but also for the sybaritic attentions it provided. But for women, a visit to the Hammam represented a day of freedom. The Hammam was a highly ritualized social event that gave women an opportunity to leave the seclusion of their homes and interact in a safe, sanctioned, environment. Women led a severely restricted life with social activity limited to family and the Hammam provided a way to fulfill their religious obligations for cleanliness and at the same time enjoy interaction with friends.
Each woman would arrive with a bundle that included a Pestemal (silk and cotton wrap to cover themselves from armpit to mid-thigh) Nalins (wooden clogs to protect from slippery wet marble surfaces) Tas (metal bowl for pouring water) and Kese (coarse cloth mitt) three plush towels for drying, plus Henna for the hair, Kohl for the eyes, and Rose Water to re-perfume the skin. These items would be decorated or carried in jeweled cases or made from precious materials. Nowadays the basic items are provided by the Hammam and all you need to bring with you besides the entrance fee is a bikini bottom or panties, or go sans culottes (sic) as nude is traditionally acceptable.
At the entrance you are shown a price list of services printed in many languages and currencies, and there is an attendant to help with the selection process. I selected the traditional hour long exfoliating body scrub and bubble body massage which includes a hair wash, for $40 inclusive. I believe the prices are inflated for tourists fearing they will not tip the workers whose income derives solely from tips. Of course that did not stop me from generously tipping the attendant who delivered tea to me, and my washer Anya - who responded with a grateful hug and kiss.
I was shown to a cubicle which had a Pestemal lying on the leather lounge, told to undress, select a pair of Nalins from the rows lined up on the floor, and when ready, lock the door behind me. The attendant silently led me to an ancient wooden door and motioned me to enter the hararet or hot room. The large marble room was rather like a steam room with a massive heated marble platform occupying the center space. The perimeter had small alcoves with marble shelves and sinks and within perhaps 10 feet from the central platform all around. The room also had a high vaulted ceiling and while the temperature was hot it was not uncomfortable. A few women were lying on the platform, so unaccustomed to the clogs I cautiously made my way to join them over the wet and slippery floor. Just as I was beginning to feel uncomfortably warm, a large, rather rotund woman entered the room and went to one of the alcoves. She disrobed and stepped into a one-piece old fashioned black bathing outfit with a number in white indicated on her shoulder. She thoroughly doused herself with water from a small bowl she carried until she was drenched and approached one of the women. This scene was repeated a few moments later for another woman and then again, this time number 17 approached me.
She smiled, introduced herself as Anya, and commanded me to “stand up”. She dropped a plastic pillow on the platform, covered it with my Pestemal and said “lay down”. After tying a fibrous mitt around her hand she doused me with warm water and began to massage my arms, chest, stomach, and legs with the mitt. While it was not exactly pleasant, it did not hurt and I allowed myself to surrender to her long strokes and gentle muscle pressure. When she was finished she took my hand to feel the results of her efforts and I was amazed to feel that layers of gritty dead skin had been scraped from my body leaving it soft and smooth. Taking my arm to steady me, Anya led me to the sink and poured warm water over me and back to the platform we went. This time I was massaged with aromatic herbal soap which covered my body with soapy bubbles and when Anya told me to turn over, I nearly slide off the marble platform before she caught me in her powerful arms. Covered with bubbles, I laughingly slipped and slid my way to the sink holding on to Anya for dear life and again she doused me with water from the head down. Washing of the hair in included in the ritual after which I was wrapped in a big warm towel with another to turban around my head and led back to my changing room to rest, totally relaxed and refreshed. I had heard that tea was included but it was not offered so I ordered a cup of their famous apple tea which deserves its reputation for being a delicious brew. It was a perfect ending to a truly unique experience; one that I can now cross off my bucket list.
For direct flights to Istanbul fly Turkish Airways new Comfort or Business Class. www.turkishairlines.com
For knowledgeable travel inside Turkey contact Fez Travel www.feztravel.com
Writer’s Note: At my recent return to Istanbul and visit of the Caĝaloĝlu Hamami I found it had been updated. The physical plant remains unchanged but cleaned up and restored and the treatments have been modernized.
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