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August 13, 2012

Turkey: Istanbul, Çemberlitaş Hamamı


The New Mosque: Istanbul’s sights are close enough to walk to but it is hard on the body.

A visit to Istanbul would not be complete without a visit to a Turkish bath or haman.   At least that’s what the guidebooks say, though I’m not sure why.  But for us this declaration applies even though our last visit to a bath was far from unequivocally pleasant.  Indeed, our last bathing experience at Freidrichsbad in Baden-Baden Germany was a twisted combination of personal discomfort and hedonistic pleasure that remains fixed with subatomic force to the brain’s synapses.  We’re not sure whether we want to forget the Freidrichsbad experience; we’re not sure we want to remember it either.  We imagined that we were in for a similar experience in one of Istanbul’s many hamamlar.  Our imaginings were not far off.

The entrance to the historic Cağaloğlu Hamamı, another bath popular with tourists, is much like the entrance to Çemberlitaş Hamamı.

We chose Çemberlitaş Hamamı for our first Turkish Bath experience as it has a reputation as a “starter bath”.  Simply, the staff at Çemberlitaş expects that the majority of their customers have little clue of what they are in for.  The hamman’s attendants are used to dealing with scantily clad bathing-challenged tourists.  Or at least that’s what we hoped.

Located in Istanbul’s historic district, the Çemberlitaş Hamamı is famously historic.  The bath was completed under the oversight of the legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan.  (Sinan’s most famous work is the grand imperial Süleymaniye Mosque and his architectural footprint extends throughout Istanbul.)

Steps lead down from the street level into Çemberlitaş Hamamı’s reception area.  After paying, Becky and I moved into the separate men and women’s areas of the bath.  In a private changing room, I exchanged my street clothes for a thin cloth wrap and moved downstairs into the haman.

Inside the humid hot main area of Çemberlitaş Hamamı is a large circular marble platform centered below a domed ceiling.  Rimming the room is an arched colonnade.  Directed by grunts and gestures from the hirsute attendant I joined the other bathers lying like a spoke on the hard rock wheel.  A sweat soon developed.  Before long an attendant came over and the bathing program began.

Responding to the guttural sounds and marginally comprehensible gesticulations of the attendant, I reoriented into a sitting position.  The bath began with a rude bucket of hot water dumped over the head.  Next was the scrub.  The attendant’s heavy hand liberated a few too many layers of my epidermis with a rough loofa sponge thick with foamy soap.  Imagine an experience somewhere between a child’s bubble bath and hard time inside a high security prison’s shower.  The scrubbing was as luxurious as bathing by riding naked through a coin-op car wash on the hood of a car.  (Or so I imagine, as this is one thing I’ve yet to try.)

Hagia Sophia

We can’t die yet: We visited Çemberlitaş Hamamı and not Cağaloğlu Hamamı so there’s at least one more place to see before we complete our bucket list.

The bath finished with more water dumped over the head.  I was left to recuperate on the marble slab.  After a few minutes, more incomprehensible commands and confusing hand motions directed me into the massage room.

Perhaps you are imagining that a massage at Çemberlitaş Hamamı is like one you might receive at a luxury resort.  You know how it is in commercials; an attractive model-like masseuse gently caresses and pampers a client’s body as spa music plays in the background.  Strike that vision.  A massage at Çemberlitaş Hamamı is nothing like a luxury spa.  Indeed, it is about as far from an upscale massage as you could imagine.

On entering the massage room I was directed to an empty table.  The room was tightly packed with clients being worked over by a crew of attendants clad only with thin damp cloth wraps stretched tightly around their waists.  The masseuses were uniformly sweaty, hairy, and overweight.

The Blue Mosque

After lying on the table the massage began.  The masseuse’s technique was far from soothing; it was abrupt and basic.  Nevertheless the massage was effective.  After a half-hour of bodywork, many muscles once knotted had been forced to submit into relaxation at the risk of being bruised.

When the massage ended incomprehensible Turkish and vaguely clear hand signs directed me to a water basin.  Here more buckets of hot water were dumped over my head in feeble attempt to remove the remaining massage oil.  With the last deluge the serviced part of the haman experience was over.  I was free to return to the main room and slide my still oil-slicked body around the smooth marble platform like a hockey puck on an ice rink.  Or I could shower and leave.  I left.

Later Becky emerged from the women’s side of the bath.  She reported a more benign and gentler experience.  It seems that the women’s portion of the haman has more features and options.  Becky reports a tamer experience.  I’ll be sure to insist on admission to the women’s side on the next visit.

There’s one thing both Becky and I agreed on; the bathing experience at Çemberlitaş Hamamı was less traumatic than at Freidrichsbad in Baden-Baden.  All things equal, being ordered about in German always feels worse than being directed about in any other language, even Turkish.

Escaping from the Turkish bath?

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