Stepping into the 435-year old Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami for my Turkish bath in Istanbul, I immediately left the city noise and stress of daily life behind.
It was 4:30 p.m. on a Monday and the hamam had just switched from servicing women (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) to men (4 p.m. to 11 p.m.).
The cordial receptionist invited me to take a seat at one of the tables surrounding the water fountain under the central dome, one of the largest in Istanbul.
This room, known as the camegah, was beautifully decorated, a grand payoff for what was a seven-year restoration project.
The exposed stonework reminded me of the centuries old tradition I was getting ready to experience while the modern wooden changing rooms on the second floor offered the comfort and cleanliness I desired.
I was provided a welcome drink, a refreshing glass of homemade strawberry sherbet.
Once I'd finished my sherbet, I was directed to a designated changing room, where I exchanged clothes for a traditional cotton wrap called a pestamal, and a pair of slippers.
When I finished my sherbet, I walked upstairs and undressed.
A list of rules was posted in the changing room (paraphrased below):
- Don't use cell phones or electronic devices in the bath
- Don't speak loudly
- Don't walk around the common areas naked (whew!), and respect the rules
- Don't take or share pictures or audio that violates the privacy of other guests
- Leave any dangerous objects with reception
Having gone fully naked like a local at a Japanese onsen in Kyoto once before, I left the boxers behind and walked back downstairs with only the pestamal tightly tucked around my waist.
I was greeted by a short, thin male attendant who I estimated to be in his early 40's. For men, the attendant is known as a tellak; for women the female attendant is a natir.
The attendant led me into a large steamy room, asking if it was my first time at a Turkish bath, to which I responded “yes.”
A heated slab of marble in a hexagonal shape, known as a Göbektasi, dominated the space. The perimeter was lined with nooks, each containing a kurna, or marble sink.
Several attendants were actively washing their clients while other customers were lying peacefully on the marble awaiting their turn. The others appeared to be mostly tourists, like me.
I was asked to lay down on the hot marble slab, which I did slowly, as my body was still acclimatizing to the change in ambient temperature.
The purpose of lying on hot marble for 10 minutes is apparently to soften one's skin and help their body adapt more quickly to the warmer room.
As I lay on the marble, looking up at the diffused light coming through the star-shaped glass windows in the dome, I wondered whether my back would be left completely red from the heat, like the traumatic fire cupping experience I had in Chengdu, China. I tried not to think about it.
My attendant stirred me from my internal dialog after 10 minutes and ushered me over to the kurna where he began showering me with cups of hot water.
He donned an exfoliation mitten, called a kese, and began scrubbing my back, arms, and legs.
His pressure was perfect, making for a pleasant experience. But he also made it a point to show me how much dead skin he was removing, something I could've done without.
I took the opportunity to ask him how long he'd been working at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami, to which he said a few years. Before that he'd been working at the Ritz Carlton. Altogether, he'd been working in Turkish baths for 20 years.
He once again doused me with hot water, and then things turned soapy with the köpük.
In this last stage, he would dip a small towel into a bucket of sudsy water and wring the bubbly soap out over me.
The bubbles transferred from his towel to my skin and after seven or eight repetitions, I was covered from head to toe in soap bubbles. It was like taking a bubble bath without the bath (and the rubber duckies).
Encased in a cocoon of bubbles, I waited to be cleansed, which came in the form of more cupfuls of water generously splashed over my head and body.
The last few splashes were with cold water, sending my skin into a state of shock after it'd so perfectly surrendered to the heat.
“Bastard!” I screamed internally. And then it was over.
My attendant walked me into a smaller room, where he wiped my head dry and offered me a dry pestamal to put around my waist.
I was led back to the camegah, where I was directed to one of the sofas lining the perimeter of the room. Only those who've gone through the bath can sit on them, and then only then if they're still in a pestamal.
New arrivals still in their street clothes are required to sit at the tables closer to the fountain in the center of the room.
I relaxed for thirty minutes, sipping an apple tea, before beginning a 30-minute massage.
As with the bath, the massages are provided by someone of the same sex as the client. The massage room was surprisingly nice, similar to what you'll find in a mid-level spa.
I asked the masseuse to focus on my back and shoulders. He did an excellent job, aside from the unexpected cracking of my back, but I wish I'd saved the 120 lira ($44) for something else.
Overall, my Turkish bath experience was a fun, relaxing time. Women may be better in touch with changes to their skin as a result, but as for me, I didn't notice a difference.
I enjoyed it for the ritual and chance to escape the business and congestion of Istanbul.
Have you been to a Turkish bath? Share your experience in the comments below.
Notes: The Turkish bath experience at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami was 140 lira ($50), and well worth the cost given the atmosphere, friendly service, and cleanliness of the facilities. After the bath, you can lounge in the waiting area as long as you want. Factor a 10 to 20 percent tip into your budget for the bath attendant, and the masseuse if you get a massage. Learn more and make reservations through their website.