Editor’s note: The Canadian and U.S. governments advise exercising a high degree of caution if travelling to Turkey due to crime, the threat of terrorist attacks, and ongoing demonstrations.
It was with trepidation that I entered the doorway marked by a bold sign announcing this was one of the “1,000 Places To See Before You Die.” Visiting an authentic Turkish hamam was definitely on my bucket list but having heard stories of brawny masseurs, and with no facility in the Turkish language, I wondered if I would survive this adventure with bones intact.
But not to worry. While the hamam has a long history of physical aggressiveness in Ottoman culture, thankfully bone crunching is out of fashion.
Cağaloğlu Hamami is the oldest Turkish bath in Istanbul, commissioned by Sultan Mehmet I in 1741 as a gift to the city. The beautifully detailed building, two levels high, has high domed ceilings, internal marble fountains, an interior garden, and is an architectural delight. Built in the centre of the old city, Cağaloğlu is near the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace.
In the past, men visited the hamam for ritual cleanliness and to conduct business. But for women, a visit to the hamam represented a day of freedom. The hamam 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 hamam provided a way to fulfill their religious obligations for cleanliness and at the same time meet with friends.
Each woman would arrive with a bundle (wealthy patrons would carry a case covered in jewels or made from precious metals) that included a Pestemal (silk/cotton wrap to cover themselves from armpit to mid-thigh) Nalins (wooden clogs to wear on wet, slippery 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.
Nowadays, the basic items are provided by the hamam and all you need to bring with you is a bikini bottom or go sans culottes, as nude is acceptable.
At the entrance there is a price list of services printed in multiple languages and currencies, and an attendant to help with the selection process. I choose the traditional hour-long exfoliating body scrub and bubble body massage which included a hair wash. I was guided to a cubicle that had a Pestemal lying on the leather lounge, told to undress, select a pair of Nalins, and when exiting, 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 (no cameras were allowed). The large marble room was like a steam room with a massive heated marble platform occupying the centre space. The perimeter had small alcoves with marble shelves and sinks that were perhaps 10 feet from the central platform all around. The temperature was hot but not uncomfortable due to a high, vaulted ceiling.
A few women were lying on the platform. Unaccustomed to the clogs, I cautiously made my way to join them over the wet, slippery floor.
Soon a large, rather rotund woman entered the room and went to one of the alcoves where she disrobed and stepped into a one-piece old-fashioned black bathing outfit with a number in white on the shoulder. She thoroughly doused herself with water and approached one of the women laying on the platform. This scene was repeated a few moments later for another woman, and then another, next time #17 approached and towered over me.
Thankfully 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, “Lie down.” That seemed to be the extent of her English.
After tying a fibrous mitt around her hand she doused me with warm water and began to massage me with the mitt. While it wasn’t exactly pleasant, it didn’t hurt. 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 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, then back to the platform we went. This time I was massaged with aromatic herbal soap which covered my body with soapy bubbles. When Anya motioned me to turn over, I slid off the slippery marble platform before she caught me in mid-air in her powerful arms, which caused an explosion of laughter from both of us.
Covered with bubbles, I laughingly slid my way to the sink, holding on to Anya for dear life. Again she doused me with water from the head down, after which she wrapped me in a big warm towel and, with another to turban around my head, led me back to my changing room to rest.
A cup of famous Turkish apple tea—well deserving of its reputation for being a delicious brew—ended a truly immersing experience.
Cağaloğlu Hamami: www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr
Barbara Angelakis is a seasoned international traveller and award-winning writer based in the New York City area. To read more of her articles and adventures visit LuxuryWeb Magazine at www.luxuryweb.com