© Copyright 2003 by Andrea Bastone
In the heart of Istanbul when you ask any local for a good Turkish Bath they'll send you to the 520 year old, Historical Nisanci Bath.
After a week in Istanbul, experiencing the wonderful atmosphere surrounding the city and before we left, my husband and I decided that we would try a Turkish Bath (Haman). Friends of ours had traveled through the interior of Turkey the year before and raved of their bath experience. It was, I quote , "nothing like I've ever done before". So with that in mind, while in Istanbul we started checking out the local Turkish Bath houses. There are many in the city that offer a variety of amenities. We finally settled on one recommended by our hostel.
For most foreigners a Turkish Baths is a novelty. Something that must be tried while visiting Istanbul, included in the same "must do list" as the mosques, Topkapi Sarayi (the residence of the sultan) and the Grand Bazaar. To the locals it's a way of life. The traditions have been passed down from the Romans to the Byzantines to the Turks who wholly embraced the experience. Ninety-nine percent of Turkey is Muslim and the Islamic emphasis on personal cleanliness resulted in hundreds of baths being built throughout Istanbul during the 1400's, many which survives to date and continue their historic function.
I mentioned to the concierge at our hostel that I was very nervous and afraid about trying a bath. His arched eyebrows and shrugged shoulders indicated that my fears were unfounded.
Traditional Turkish baths have separate sections and entrances for men and women. Being a western woman and never having traveled in a Muslim country, I found the diversity between the equality of men and women an unusual and educational experience. As my husband entered the front of the building of a rather nondescript store front I was scurried away, around the corner, down the alley and through a back entrance where little sign stated "Only for Women".
As I was gently shoved through the Women's entrance, an earthy smell mixed with spices tickled my nose and the warm tropical air enveloped me. An exotic sensation charged through me. I hesitated for a moment wondering what I had gotten myself into.
The small door led to a very large room. Encompassing the room were small wooded cubicles with shuttered doors. Three generations of women were lounging on an old, threadbare couch watching a scratchy black and white television. Deep creases graced the oldest looking woman. She had a very contented look and was lightly snoring. A shabby Persian rug covered the marble floor. Faded and curled pictures adorned the peeling walls. One of the younger women rose to greet me. On the other side of the room someone was ripping strips of material off a patron's leg as she screeched with pain. Pointing to the screecher I shook my head and gestured to the attendant that I did not want that. Nodding her head, I hoped in understanding, she led me to one of the shuttered rooms. "Clothes off" she instructed and tossed me a thin, starched towel. I undressed, neatly laying out my clothes, carefully tucking my possessions into their folds and trying to imagine what was yet to come.
I slipped on the sandals provided, shyly opened my door with the towel wrapped tightly around me and moved towards the center of the room. Another woman attendant motioned me to follow her and handed me over to the ancient women. She, in turned, led me to a larger room, stunningly tiled with marble. I was alone. The only light provided were from rays of sun which beamed through stain glass ceiling tiles. A low ledge surrounded the room. Beautifully marble basins carved emerging from the wall were evenly placed around the ledge. Lion head brass taps dribbled warm water into the basins. The sounds echoed throughout the room. A red plastic bowl floated in each basin. The walls were traditional plaster but you could see shadows classic frescos etched into them. In the center of the room was a large circular slab of raised marble.
The old women signaled for me to go to a basin. She whipped the towel off my body, grabbed a plastic bowl full of water and poured it over my head. She gesture for me to sit, smiled a gold toothed grin and walked out of the room.
Alone and naked I tried to covered myself discretely with my arms and wondered what I was supposed to do next. A woman entered and took a place opposite to me across the room. As she preformed her cleansing ritual I was fascinated, trying not to watch but finding it difficult to pull my eyes away. Meticulous in her routine, she washed every surface of her body, stopping only to rinse from a basin. Once in a while she would glance in my directions and our eyes would meet. When she was finished she wrapped a towel around herself, smiled at me and left.
Beginning to feel chilled, it was then that I finally clued in and realized what the red basin was for. I started pouring the warm water over my head and arms. The water was soothing and was making me relax. The room was absolutely enchanting. I closed my eyes, leaned against the cool walls imagined myself back in time with a room full of women all bustling about performing their social cleansing custom.
Shortly the old lady entered. Nudging my shoulder, snapping me back to the present she indicated I should mount the circular marble slab. The old women was naked except for a black g-string. Her nude body sagged with age. Wrinkled breasts hung loosely against her slim form almost joining her aged knees. Gray thin long hair hung to her waist.
The marble felt warm as I lay down on my stomach. Closing my eyes I wanted to fully experience what was happening to me. Her soft, strong hands were all over my body. Scrubbing with a loofah and what smelled vaguely like soap she left no part of my body uncleaned. Every so often she find sore parts of my shoulders, legs and back and massage it out. Periodically she rinsed me off and after a short time slapped my rear indicating I should turn over starting the whole procedure over again on my front. She was a strong woman. Several times she scrubbed with so much energy I felt like she would propel me to other side of the room. She washed my hair, rubbed my shoulders but too soon I was done. My skin was red and shining from the scrubbing. I haven't felt so cleaned.
She tossed me my towel, gestured towards the sauna and hunched her shoulders as if asking if I would like to use it. I already has a natural glow from the bath so after a short stint I wandered back to my cubicle to change back to my street clothes..
The whole bath experience was exhilarating, different and wonderful. I fell in love with the whole tradition. Leaving my first Haman feeling exhausted and totally relaxed, heated and glowing from the inside out I felt proud of myself for having overcome my fear. In retro spec it's hard to imagine that I should have been afraid of this wonderful experience.
I walked out of the women's entrance of the bath house. Before going to find my husband I took time to absorb the surroundings. A working neighborhood with laundry hanging from lines over the narrow lane ways, newly renovated buildings interspersed with dilapidated ones. Children playing in the street, laughing and singing and Turkish music drifting from a window. It was a nice neighborhood and added to the charm of the bath experience.
I stuck my head in the main door and asked if my husband was here. A gentleman waved for me to come in. The contrast of the tired space of the women's side, and this was an exquisite room was paramount. Warm red leather couches arranged on a thick Persian rug looked like a comfortable area for lounging. Surrounding the main foyer on a mezzanine second floor were individual rooms with beautifully carved mahogany doors. I was allowed to sit on a chair in the foyer. About fifteen minutes later my husband appeared. When we paid the gentleman he rubbed our faces with fresh squeezed lemon juice causing our skin to tingle as the pores open to the splash . We hear him say "Afiyet olsun" (May it contribute to your health!) as we leave!
While walking back to our hostel we enthusiastically exchanged our stories. While his story was similar to mine he did get the perks. A wonderful gentle massage, a long sauna and discrete loofah washing. Big fluffy towels, lavender soap and a rub down with oils completed the sultan's treatment.
Given the chance I would experience it again. If you have the opportunity to take in a Turkish Bath. Do it! It truly is a Turkish Delight.
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