Like almost everyone else who visits Istanbul, I wanted to take a bath in one of the city’s famous hammams when I was in Turkey in October 2005. I chose the nearly 300 year old Cagaloglu Hammam located near the Grand Bazaar. Like all traditional hammams, this one was segregated by sex. After paying the $20 entrance fee for a scrub down, I entered the Camekan – a large square-shaped room with a cafe and fountain on the first floor and small changing rooms on both the 1st and 2nd floors. I was led across the room to the staircase and was told to remove my shoes before ascending the stairs. The attendant led me to an elegant, yet understated, very small changing room constructed of wood and glass and containing a small, single bed. The attendant handed me a pestemel – a cloth for wrapping around my waist and instructed me to put it on. After he left, I changed into my pestemel hoping that I had done so correctly! I walked downstairs where another attendant escorted me into another room which was warmer than the camekan. I had learned earlier that the Turkish hammam is modeled after the Roman version which consisted of three rooms: the frigidarium (cold room), the tepidarium (warm room) and the caldarium (hot room).
After a brief visit to the tepidarium, yet another attendant showed me into the hottest room: the caldarium. I walked through the doors not being able to see a thing for a moment or two because of all of the steam. I then saw this beautiful, octagonal shaped room with a central raised platform in the middle of the tiled floor and decorative, low-lying, wash basins along the walls. Attendants were busy scrubbing down their clients at each of the fifteen or so wash basins and were massaging the backs of their clients on the raised platform. My burly attendant escorted me to my own personal wash basin with hot and cold running water. In broken English, he asked me to sit down on the floor next to the basin. He told me to pour warm water over my head using the small, stainless steel basin. This was, of course, necessary to help raise my body temperature. He told me he would return in five minutes to scrub me down. While sloshing myself with water, I admired the architecture of the room as well as the ambience. The floor and raised platform were beautifully tiled. The barrel arched ceiling had star-shaped cutouts on the roof to allow steam to escape. I felt very relaxed listening to the sound of water hitting the tiled floor as well as from the rustle of people walking around, getting scrubbed or massaged and talking softly with their friends or family members. Like the Roman baths, the Turkish hammam is a place where men and women socialize (albeit separately because of cultural restraints).
As promise, my attendant returned, soaped me down and began scrubbing me with a large loofah like sponge. Suffice it to say, this was not a pleasant experience. I felt as if he was enjoying my writhing in pain as he removed the outer layer of my skin! After about ten minutes or so, he rinsed me down, told me to stay as long as I wanted and to tip him well when I am ready to leave! Still wearing my pestemel, I walked over to the raised platform where attendants were throwing buckets of warm water over the backs of the mostly European and American crowd. I felt extremely relaxed lying down on this heated platform. After about 15 minutes, I decided it was time to leave. I left the room and reentered the tepidarium where another attendant yanked my pestemel off and gave me a towel for drying off. I walked upstairs to my room, changed back into my clothes and rested on the bed for about ten minutes. Finally, I went downstairs to the cafe where I enjoyed a cup of hot tea, a large bottle of water and pleasant conversation with a German traveler. I felt extremely relaxed yet awake and departed the hammam for some more shopping in the Grand Bazaar.
I enjoyed this experience so much that I made every effort to visit more hammams during my two-week stay in Turkey with my friends. In Antalya, a lovely city on the south coast of the country, Nancy, Patty and I checked out the hammam in our hotel. Because it was coed, we had to wear a bathing suit. I have very fond memories of our brief visit to this hammam in which we sloshed buckets and buckets of water over each other!
It’s unfortunate that this cultural institution is dying. Now that most Turks have running water in their homes, there is not much demand for these historic hammams anymore. The more exquisite ones such as the one I visited in Istanbul will continue to operate as they are intensely popular with travelers.
See more photos of Istanbul and Turkey on my Gallery. I visited Turkey in 2005 and 2009.
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