This is a guest post by Nico Crisafulli. If you want to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read more here.
I visited Istanbul with the idea that I would not do a Turkish bath. I stood by that decision simply because I figured it’d be a bit too touristy, and frankly, it seemed a little silly. I mean, who sits in a hot room with a bunch of middle-aged, incomprehensible men, sweating and unable to breathe? The whole idea seemed preposterous.
That was of course until the fifth of my six days in the city. I was dining by myself at a hilariously-named restaurant in the Sultanahmet called Doy Doy, which, surprisingly, had some of the best food I encountered in over the course of my stay””the Lavash bread and lamb casserole was freakishly delicious.
Across the cobblestoned street from the Doy Doy was an inconspicuous entryway with a sign overhead that read “Bath.” Turns out this hamam was unique in the city, one of the longest continuously operating baths in Istanbul. Established in 1673, the place topped out at a quaint 335 years old, instantly making any American business touting “Since 1973” seem kind of ridiculous in comparison.
Once dinner was fully imbibed and my hands were on my belly, I rather impulsively made the decision to throw my inhibition into the wind and remove myself from my clothes in the presence of strange Turkish men. The fact that I had nothing else to do that night was also a consideration.
I walked through the hole-in-the-wall entrance and down the long corridor, tentatively, but confident I’d made the right decision. The hallway opened up into a room set deep into the hillside, quite underneath the Blue Mosque perched on the hilltop several hundred feet above.
The proprietor stepped up at once and engaged me. He told me his prices along with a few quick details about the place. Yes, it was older than pretty much anything freestanding in my United States, setting my mind to consider how things must have been upon its grand opening.
The man’s English was marginal at best, something I actually took pleasure in since most Turks I’d encountered up until then held excellent English skills. (It just feels weird to expect everyone you see to be able to speak your own language no matter where you are in the world.)
I was shown into a dressing room and given a small towel, a pair of rubber clogs and was left to wonder what next to do. I undressed, donned said towel and clogs and stepped out into the suddenly very drafty main salon. Luckily, it was late and the place was empty save for the proprietor and one male client who was lounging in an easy-chair smoking a languid cigarette.
The proprietor gave my elbow to an old man, roughly of retirement age, and dressed in nothing but my matching towel and clogs. He escorted me through a squat doorway into the bath proper.
This is where the experience became an authentic roll through hundreds of years of Turkish history. The bath rooms were a honeycombed marvel, made fully of marble, laid out as a large hexagon with six circular alcoves around a main room with a high domed marble ceiling above. Vents pocked the ceiling and a warm steam permeated the space. The alcoves were dark and had benches and basins for splashing warm water onto your face and neck. In the center of the main room sprawled a gigantic marble slab about 15 feet square and was exquisitely warm to the touch.
The old man gestured abrasively for me to lay belly down on the slab. The warmth was magnificent. Not too hot to scald, but warm enough to quickly bring my core temperature up from the winter chill outside. I was alone in the dim space, and with face pressed to marble, couldn’t have been more comfortable.
Two minutes later the old man was dumping hot water on me. Not misting or sprinkling water but literally unloading pail after pail of sweet hot water all over my back, without pause or explanation. The sensation was wonderful. Hot marble, hot water, ancient stone containing who knew what history. Any anxiety I may have had walking into the place was quite literally washed away.
Four pails were unloaded onto me and the old man spoke what I could only assume meant “come with me.” I spatulaed myself from the slab and, dripping wet, followed him though a set of swinging doors I hadn’t noticed before. I came into a small, cool, also marble room that had showers and another smaller slab upon which I was made to lay. He thereupon proceeded to pumice me from head to toe. He did this unhesitatingly and without mercy. When he finished, my entire body was glowing red and quivering like raw meat.
Following the exfoliation, I was soaped down with the same willful abandon. Pails of hot water, suds and oil rained down upon me. Wet soap was splashed from all angles. What surprised me most about this process was not the way my senses were near-electronically lit up, but how artfully this man did his job. He simply reveled in it, sang, whistled, cascaded pumice over rosy skin as if he was lathing the finest quality wood.
Twenty minutes later, with the treatment nearly done (the finale was probably 10 pails of hot water dumped shamelessly over my head) he incomprehensibly said I had the option to return to the warm slab in the main bath or to adjourn to the salon and changing cabins. I meekly gestured my wish for the slab and took another 15 minutes daydreaming about sultans and concubines on a piece of marble that felt as soft as pillows.
Once I had my fill, I exited the bath and returned to the salon. The proprietor came over, gave me a warm dry towel for my waist and wrapped another one around my head with such expertise I had a hard time removing it later. The mirror showed me someone looking vaguely similar to Suleiman the Magnificent, towel on my head tight as a turban.
We chatted awkwardly upon my leaving. He said I had good lips which, according to him, meant that I was an intellectual. Go figure. His English may have been off, but I took it as a compliment.
The bathing practice has a compelling history in Turkey. Throughout its long Empire-laden history the Turks have held the practice with solemnity, and it’s evident in the ritual. Some of the most elaborate rooms in the Sultan’s palace nearby were dedicated purely to hygiene, something that is quite lacking in the structures of Western Europe of the same time period. Not to mention the simple statistic of a public bath remaining in operation well over 3 centuries.
Whatever compelled me to pass through that simple entrance notwithstanding, I’m happy to have experienced this cultural phenomenon first-hand. I doubt I’ll look upon my little bathroom back at home the same way ever again.
Nico Crisafulli writes regularly for the AirTreks blog.
Photos courtesy of the author.