Hammam Says Relax: A Traveler’s First Time Experience in a Turkish Bathhouse

During my May trip abroad, I visited the Cağaloğlu Hammam, known as one of the “1000 Places You Must See Before You Die” by Trip Advisor.

Read about it here or click below to read the article in plain text.

“Hammam Says Relax: A Traveler’s First Time Experience in a Turkish Bathhouse”
By Danielle Levsky
Posted on June 24, 2015

At home, I just couldn’t seem to relax. From working 60 hours a week to compulsively checking my email in my spare time, I tried doing yoga, hitting saunas and steam rooms, and even meditating, but nothing seemed to relieve my anxiety. While planning my vacation in Turkey, I discovered the Turkish bathhouse, the Hammam.

Hamamı were traditionally used for health purposes to purify both the physical and spiritual aspects of a person, by cleansing and purifying the body. They also held many social occasions for men and women. Older women, for instance, would go to the Hammam to seek out potential suitors for the sons. Everyone would bring foods and drinks to feast upon before and after washing. Now, the tradition has subsided into relaxing and socializing with your neighbors. Many Turks only attend the Hammam a few times a year.

On my trip through Istanbul, I wanted a taste of this experience for myself, hoping it would help me find my own peace of mind. My friend and native Istanbulian, Emre, took me to the traditional Cağaloğlu Hamamı. The entrance had a large, marble door, with the name of the Hammam and an inscription from the Qu’ran engraved atop it. The ceilings were cracked but still had intricate patterns of mosaics in floral and geometric patterns. This Hammam was built in 1741, commissioned by Sultan Mehmet I as a gift to the city and with the goal of bringing in revenue for the Hagia Sophia Mosque. It is currently a family business, owned by the Gürkans: the woman and man who maintain the dressing areas. According to TripAdvisor, It is also considered one of the “1,000 Places You Must See Before You Die.”

We walked into the men’s dressing area which was a two-floor, high ceilinged, squared room. Changing rooms lined the sides of each floor. Where we stood, there was a Baroque-style fountain pool in the middle.The sun came in through the high domed ceiling. Maroon-colored and low, cushioned chairs, tall chairs, and potted plants were scattered around. Five men wearing pestemals, traditional cotton body wrap, around their midsections argued loudly in Turkish. Emre noticed me staring, leaned over and whispered to me that they were merchants from the nearby Grand Bazaar trying to exchange their goods with a mall retailer. Men came and went through the changing rooms. They passed by a gray haired bearded man with a jutting pot belly and waved to him or smacked him on the shoulder. The man then approached us, smiling and extending his arms out in greeting. His dampened pestemal hung loosely around his neck and beads of sweat dripped down his face.

“Merhaba,” he greeted us both in Turkish. Emre shook his hand while I mumbled my butchered version of a hello. He told us that he had just finished a session in the men’s section and that we were in for a real treat. Emre grinned at me.

I was sent in the opposite direction at the end of the room. An indiscreet sign hung above the attendant: “Cafe.” Jars of pickles, pickled peppers, and rose leaves lined the walls. Outside, there was a terrace with garden chairs and tables.

In the women’s quarters, a group of five girls sat on low seats. I imagined they were gossiping about their husbands and lovers, complaining about the government, or, perhaps in my paranoia, just commenting on every foreigner that wandered in. I tried to ask them if they knew who I should speak to and they gestured with their heads to a woman who had just emerged from a changing room. She dried her thick, brown hair with a tan pestemal and smiled at me.

“Come, come!” she said to me, leading me upstairs to one of the many doors that lined the square changing space. “Come, come.”

She opened one of the doors and inside was a changing room with a plastic wrapped bed, a table with large mirror, and metal hooks on the walls. Pestemal rested on the bed and nalins, wooden clogs, rested at the foot of it. The woman, who seemed to be the manager of the women’s quarter, thrust a key into my hands and then shut the door behind her.

I descended the stairs in wooden sandals and a pestemal wrapped around me. The manager-woman ushered me toward another hall at the opposite end of the square room. It led past a few tables and chairs, where a group of German girls sat in pestemals and drank tea. They barely spoke to one another, resting their heads and letting their body lay limp on the backs of the chairs. Temperature wise, Turkish baths vary between 35-45 C in the cool area and 55-60 C in the hot area.

We passed through the soğukluk, the cooling down room; it had sinks of cool water and racks of warm pestemals. The woman did not follow me into the sicaklik, the heated room, and instead motioned inside and departed with one final word: “Relax!”

I entered through an old, wooden door, and scanned the expansiveness of the sicaklik. Sunlight shined through Star of David (or in Turkey, Star of Solomon) shaped holes in the ceiling. Domed cubes lined each corner and each space was separated by couplets inscribed into the marble. There were small alcoves and washing basins all around. I watched the others relax naked atop their pestemal in the alcoves and on the göbektaşı: the central, raised platform above the heat source. Instead of lying down, I wandered around the sicaklik in awe, going through little sectionings of the room that separated the wet parts of the sicaklik from the dry parts. Women laid across marble benches, smiling at me as I wandered in and out. Several women entered the Hammam and disrobed, pouring water over themselves in the basins and then putting on one-piece black bathing suits.

When I finally came back to the central part of the room, I saw the manager woman again. She had a scolding, but loving look on her face. She gestured toward the göbektaşı and then at me.

“Relax, relax!” she repeated herself.

I scurried across the wet floor and sat on the platform. Like the girls around me, I laid down my pestemal and laid atop it, trying to ignore the fact that I was completely nude. Laying totally naked and exposed to the women and hot, wet air around me was relaxing and riveting at the same time. As I lay on the raised platform, I stared at the massive dome above that had the similar pealing tiles of floral and geometric patterns that I saw upon walking into the Hammam.

After a few minutes, my vision of the dome was obscured as an older woman, who could have been my grandmother, came up to me and smiled from above. She wore the black bathing suits I saw earlier. “Stand up, please,” she asked me. My masseuse put a plastic pillow on the göbektaşı and then my pestemal atop it. She patted the pestemal gently while attaching a kese, a rough Hammam mitt, to her hands. I sat and she poured buckets of lukewarm water over my head, making me gasp. She then began to massage and scrub my arms, torso, and legs with the sudsy kese, the scent of traditional, Turkish bath soap ever present.

She asked me my name in broken English and I told her “Danielle.”

“Beautiful,” she said with a toothy grin, making a circle with her finger to signal me to turn over. “Mine is Anya,” she said as she scrubbed my back.

I closed my eyes and felt every tension dissolve, every muscle in my body go limp. Anya sat me up and led me to the basin. She asked me to sit down by the basin as she began to wash my hair. I closed my eyes and I was a babe in the bathtub again. My grandmother, with her strong but loving hands, gently washed what little hair I had on my head and rubbed my arms and back with soap and water. I opened my eyes after the water trickled to the floor to Anya’s warm smile.

Anya poured several buckets of water over me and my head. Then, she rolled a towel in my hair up like a crown on top of my head, wrapped a fresh pestemal around my body, and gave me a hug. She tried to let me out the exit of the sicaklik and I told her I would stay a little longer.

“Of course!” she said, then echoed the words of the manager of the women’s quarter, “Relax!”

I laid on the göbektaşı for another fifteen minutes, breathing in and out rhythmically, eventually sinking into a meditation. When my mind was totally clear, I sat up and looked around me, locking eyes with a girl who had received a wash from another woman close to me. We smiled at each other, happy and completely relaxed. The only thought that crossed my mind was that I was looking forward to sinking down at the cafe terrace with a cup of tea and my good friend Emre.

After I walked back out into the changing area, the manager of the women’s quarter greeted me with a grin. She was wearing a loose, green dress now.

“You relax, yes?” I smiled and nodded and she chuckled heartily, squeezing my shoulder. “Very good.”


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