Shedding Clothes And Inhibitions In A Turkish Hammam

A revelatory steam, scrub and soak in Istanbul.  
Hammam Istanbul Turkey
Istanbul’s most striking hammams or bathhouses were created during the Ottoman Empire. The elaborate structures have high, domed ceilings, marble floors, and basins with intricate brass fittings. Photo: Gavin Hellier/Jai/Corbis/Image Library

After four days of exploring Istanbul on foot, with whirlwind visits to the Grand Bazaar and Princes’ Islands, I was determined to spend a quiet evening in my hotel room. That was until I saw a magnificent display of lokum (Turkish sweets) from my tram window. So I hopped off at Divanyolu Street, three stops before my intended destination, to indulge my taste buds. As I was leaving the bazaar, I spotted the Çemberlitas¸ Hamami, a popular bathhouse tucked into a tiny corner of the bustling street.

Like many Indians, I’m not very enthusiastic about disrobing in public and sharing bathing spaces. But my travel philosophy (When in Rome…) persuaded me to drop my inhibitions. If the mighty Ottomans prescribed community bathing, who was I to disagree?

Moreover, I’d been travelling like a beast for two weeks and was beginning to look like one too. I scanned the hammam’s list of services, ranging from aroma facials to full body massages, and chose the traditional Turkish bath, which would set me back by 115 Turkish Lira (₹2,663).

Hammams have long been an integral part of Turkish culture. They were thriving social hubs, second in popularity only to mosques. It is said that mothers frequently visited the local bathhouse to check out prospective brides for their sons. Today, the old baths are frequented by tourists like me to get a taste of the Ottoman way of life.

Hammam Istanbul Turkey

Traditionally in Turkey, men and women bathe in separate hammams or at different times of day. Photo: Jim Naughten/Solus/Corbis/Image Library

Wrapped only in a pestemal, a thin cotton bath wrap, I struggled not to stare at the bare limbs around me in the sauna. To take my mind off my near-nudity, I focused on the splendid architecture. Lying on a heated marble slab in the centre of the hammam, I gazed at the high central dome, soaking in the warm glow created by the dim light and thick steam. The structure was designed by Sinan, a prominent 16th-century royal architect, who also built 94 exquisite mosques around the world.

The steam worked its magic on my travel-weary nerves, and soon I settled into a deep state of relaxation. I realised I had drifted off only when I was nudged awake by my matronly attendant, signalling the next step in the hammam experience. As she massaged the knots in my back into submission, we tried to make conversation, but she spoke little English and I knew no Turkish. She turned her attention to my limbs while I gazed at the gurgling water, ornate cisterns, and regal bath chambers encircling the space.

Muscles sufficiently loosened, I received a thorough scrub-down with a rough cloth called the kese, used to scrape away dirt and dead skin. A bubble bath followed and 15 minutes later, I was lounging, uninhibited in the pool, wedged between two French women. Buffed, bathed, and shampooed, I felt more refreshed than I had imagined possible. The hammam, I concluded, was the most intimate cultural experience Istanbul has to offer.

Appeared in the June 2014 issue as “Turkish Towels”.

  • Nikita Gupta is a social-sector professional suffering from wanderlust; her heart flip-flops for trains, street food and mountains.

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