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Kayla in Turkey, A Travel Journal
Hamam 1: A Turkish Bath House
  April 22, 2002
by Kayla Summers

On getting soaked at the bath houses, I have no idea why I waited so long, I guess, one feels a little insecure about communication in another language or making a faux pas.  Add in being totally naked, and, well, it gave me pause. Generally I’m pretty intrepid, I eat at food stalls and vendors on the street, (in nine years I’ve had only one case of “Tourista”, mind you) from Malaysia to Mexico, bathing in cold rivers, hot springs, jungle waterfalls, throughout the world, albeit discreetly...Ahh!  There is the rub. (Please forgive the pun; I could not resist.)

All my Turkish girl friends, had of course been to Hamams, but only in their youth, and naturally when, young, they were feeling, too self-conscious. Of course they would accompany me...but later. So it appeared I was on my own for the first on anyway. The first one, I attended was very easy to find, The Cemerilitas Hamani (pronounced Chim-errr-lee-tus hahh-mah-ni).  It’s on the main road between the main tourist attractions Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofya, and the Blue Mosque (on one side, and the Grand Bazaar on the other).  A sign on the building, identifies itself in English open from 06:00 to 12 midnight, with separate sections for men and women. Built in 1584, commissioned by a Nur-u Banu, wife of Sultan Selim II and mother of the third sultan. This bathhouse is one of the most important works of the 16th century Ottoman architecture As you enter there is a kiosk that shows a price list, you can scrub yourself or have an assisted scrub (much recommended, I mean really you are there get your back done). For a 25 million lira, or about 15 dollars U.S., you get the works! The person gives you a disc; then you enter the locker room, where a woman will give you a locker and key.  The locker contains one big bath sheet.  She offers you a scrubbing mitt for 1 million lira, about 50 cents, (I recommend it). Then she issues you a pair of slippers.  You are asked to disrobe completely.   Some women opt to keep their panties on, I noted, and about a quarter of the women wore their underwear during my visit.  One French girl wore a full bathing suit; however, because of the heat, it was discarded, fairly soon. Next, you pass into another room that has bathroom stalls for the obvious, and there is a huge dark door that you pull open and enter into another world.

 The room is round, made completely in light marble, and along the walls are arches, which lead to smaller rooms with ornate fountains of gurgling water.  The ceiling is a dome with holes cut in a continuous circular pattern, which open to the sky. 

Beams of light grace the huge, circular, heated, marble platform in the middle of the room. Although I saw no steam, per se, I’d guess the humidity to be about eighty to ninety percent! Languidly laying on this marble platform were women. (Conservatively, I’d say the platform could hold about twenty.) Some were talking quietly to one another, some asleep, some gazing at the patterns of the dome.   All were in various stages of bath, all of which takes place on the platform itself. A woman greeted me, made room on the platform for me to lie down, head towards center,  feet to edge.

There you lie, either falling asleep or gazing at the workings of “the bath”, In this position, you begin to feel warm, and perspire a little.  The heat and moisture serves to begin to open your pores, loosen your muscles, and make you feel relaxed.  Then a woman instructed me, to move to her location.

There I laid, along the curve of this marble platform, on my bath sheet, while she began by gently pouring a few buckets of warm water. 

I had given her the new mitt, and the scrubbing began, from neck to toes.  She turned me over, and the same process of scrubbing continued.  She sat me up, and scrubbedmy arms, all done slowly and methodically.  She led me through the arches to the ornate fountains, where she rinsed off all my dead skin (surprisingly, a lot) with many buckets of warm water; then sat me below the fountain, while she washed my hair, face, and behind my ears. Next she poured more buckets of warm water to rinse it all off, and I was sent back to the platform, which itself, had been rinsed.

The bubble bath began. She started with soapy water, and using a muslin pillowcase, soaked it in the water, then inflated it by blowing into it.  She griped the case from the top, pulling it closed as her hand descended, billows of bubbles, floated down on me!  She massaged me-- bubbles and all, for about 15 or 20 minutes.  Turning in the same fashion as the scrub, she led me back to the fountains next, where she rinsed me again, and led me back to the original position, and instructed me to rest.            

Feeling totally relaxed and clean,

I did drift off a little; one of the bath women began, singing a soothing Turkish ballad, which echoed softly, throughout the room.

Another bathing woman, in one of the adjacent fountain rooms, joined her, creating a sound reminiscent of Gregorian chants, but far more melodic, haunting, and beautiful. The feeling was serene and safe, knowing “AllahaIsmarladik” (Allah is holding you).

After a while, I mustered enough strength for the end.  The bathing woman gave me two huge, Turkish towels, and I returned to the fountain, rinsed off once again, and rubbed dry with the new towel. Exiting out the same door hidden in the arches, I went back to the locker room, where I dressed, and walked out to the regular world.  I did feel a little dehydrated, and scored a cup and a half of freshly squeezed orange juice, for 75 cents from one of the many fruit stalls.  I sat down and watched the sun set.  Hours later, as I sit typing this adventure, my skin feels soooo smooth!  My face, perhaps because of the humidity, looks younger.  My whole body feels, well.... really clean!

I try to recollect every nuance of the scene, to imagine that for hundreds of years, women have been there, in the same fashion, getting bathed and massaged by gentle hands, then released back to whatever world existed over the centuries. Truly, it was one of the most sensuous experiences, I have ever had.  Now I promise myself to make it a routine of my life in Turkey

 For practical information: one can find bathhouses fairly easily, generally near a mosque.  As you near one, you will see stores that sell long loofah pads, other bath products, scents, soaps, salts, and olive oil scrubs (anything you can think of).  Remember that the Turks have been doing this for centuries.  There is nothing that they have not thought of.  If you want your own soap and shampoo, bring them along, as well as your makeup.  (Turkish women tend to have their personal bath kit.)  As for the clothes, you can bring along a change, but just underwear works well.

The address is Vezirhan Cad. No. 8
Web site: http://www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr
Email contact: contact@cemberlitashamami.com.tr
Fax (90 212) 511 25 35

(I would give you the phone number, but unless you speak Turkish without pantomiming, it won’t do you much good!)

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