For many visitors to Istanbul, a trip to a hammam is on their list. A few years ago, this was my first experience of truly clean living. Som e friends and I went to SultanAhmet, the major tourist area in Istanbul (that is where Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque are). One of the people had a flier to a famous Ottoman bath (hammam), so we decided to go there. The door was a fairly nondescript entryway with an grizzled older man drumming up business. At that time it cost about $15, but now it is more like $50 or more.
First of all, we left our clothes in a locker and wrapped a big red-striped peshtemal (a thin cotton cloth) around us. We were ushered into a large round marble room that was very warm. There was a large raised marble dais in the middle, where we lay down wrapped in our cloths. The stone was very warm. We lay there and began to melt. Soon, however, some Turkish women came in, naked except for their panties. They were the masseuses. We watched with curiosity as they worked on a couple of British women. Those women also had left their panties on (out of modesty?) so they got all wet. (I wondered if they had brought extras…). When they were done, it was my turn.
But first, let me try to describe the place. The name of this particular bath is Cemberlitas (chem bare lee tash). Built in 1584, it was commissioned by Nur-u Banu Sultan, the wife of Sultan Selim II. “It is one of the most important works of 16th century Ottoman architecture”, according to the pamphlet. İt was built by Mimar Sinan, one of Turkey’s most famous architects. The ceiling had many small vents or windows in it, so the light shone down in various places on the dais as the sun moved. It looked like the inside of a stone saltshaker. The room was round, with carved stone columns separating the various alcoves. There were stone basins around the room with water faucets for each of them. There were also larger alcoves that had three basins in them. We discovered that each one had a different temperature of water, from cold to lukewarm to warm. After lying on the table for a while, it felt good to get up and wash off with our choice of water. I was awed to think that this place, now a must-see tourist place, was once a place full of highly placed women and their female entourages. Imagine the intrigue and the court gossip fomented there! If the stone could talk– it would be in Turkish and I wouldn’t understand much!!! Anyway, I was very impressed and was glad I went in.
I felt even better after my massage. First, the woman called me– “Lady, lady”. I went over to her and she took off my cloth, laying it out for me to lay on. Then she motioned for me to turn over. She rubbed my skin with a scratchy mitt, which felt quite good. Then I rolled over and she continued, making me sit up while she did my arms. She motioned for me to lie on my belly again and then she started the soap and massage process. The olive oil soap was put into what looked like a thin pillow case. She got it all wet, blew into it, and squeezed it. The air coming out of it made a foam that she put all over me. Then she rubbed me the right way and pounded my back a bit. Then it was time for the front. It felt great!!!
The next step was to lead me over to the marble basin, where she washed my hair by pouring water from a bowl over me. She rubbed my back and shoulders some more, rinsed me off, and led me back to the stone table to melt completely. It was wonderful! I felt like a baby and like a pampered woman. It was VERY relaxing and of course historical.
Anyway, we eventually emerged from the bath and went and had lunch. It was at a place that had waiters dressed in pseudo Anatolian outfits and there were fezzes for the tourists to put on (Yes, we did and took our pictures). In the middle of the restaurant, there were four women also dressed in Anatolian clothes, preparing what the menu called crepes, but which was really thin bread. They rolled it with long thin rolling pins– more like long sticks– and cooked it on a flat plate. This is the traditional way of making bread in Anatolia (the part of Turkey that is outside of Istanbul on the Asian side). It was good, but way overpriced– but we were, after all, in the tourist area. Then we walked about 20 minutes to go to Eminonu, which is where there are a lot of ferries, the Galata Bridge, and the Spice Bazaar.
It was a lovely day. It was fun to be a tourist for a while and to pretend to be a harem maiden…