There are many Turkish baths in Istanbul (known locally as hamamı). Despite our best intentions to compare and contrast a variety of them, however, we accomplished a visit to only one Turkish bath — and that was Çemberlitaş Hamamı.
Çemberlitaş Hamamı was built by the architect Sinan in 1584. According to the Çemberlitaş Hamamı site, the structure contains only one original item, the “lantern” in the women’s section. I only just now learned that, though, so the whole time I was there, I imagined that I was experiencing precisely what women in the 16th century did. Of course, so many experiences in Istanbul make you feel as if you are being transported back in time, but none more than getting serviced at Çemberlitaş, and the attendants only add to the allure.
It may have been useful to read up on the protocol prior to visiting, but I went in completely cold, not knowing what to expect and having never been to a Turkish bath (or any other type for that matter). The men’s and women’s quarters are separated. It was late on a Sunday night, only a couple of hours before closing time (and the date coincided with the night of a big basketball semi-final game in which Turkey’s team was a contender against the U.S.), so it wasn’t too crowded.
I selected my service (a massage + reflexology treatment) and was given a couple of tokens and a locker key and was then directed into the women’s area. Even though there were only a few customers (perhaps five or six, including me, and maybe the same number of attendants performing various tasks, it was definitely not for the shy! All of the pictures on the site show customers wearing towels, but in actuality I didn’t see too many of those. Once I shed my towel on the hot stone table in the “hot area,” I didn’t put it back on again. After perspiring for a while on the hot stone table while my attendant, an older lady, bathed near one of the basins (kurna) nearby, the attendant came over and began the massage and scrubbed me down with what a strong soap that smelled remarkably like Ivory. After washing that off and periodically instructing me through vocal grunts (due to the language barrier) to turn over, the next step was the foam bath.
Now, if you’ve never had a massive jug of foamy water poured across your naked form on a hot stone table, I highly recommend the experience. It is a sensation like none other, and the warmth and soft feeling of the foam is like a soft light cushiony cashmere throw being tossed over you after it’s just come out of the dryer, only better. If only that portion lasted a little longer. The only issue I had with this part of the bath was that, in the prone position, the foam surrounded my face, and because the attendant was busy doing her job and there was, again, that language barrier, I felt too shy to move the foam away from my face, so it got a little bit in my eyes and nose. Small price to pay. Eventually the attendant “asked” me to sit up, and she scrubbed and exfoliated my arms by pulling forward on them.
After this portion was finished, the attendant instructed me to go over to the basin where she was seated earlier and she had me sit in front of her while she washed my hair, alternately pouring jugs of warm water over my head and scrubbing my scalp with shampoo.
Eventually, after the bath and massage were finished, I got a reflexology treatment upstairs, and later sat around for a while in the warm room where I first entered. Still later I spent a few minutes in the hot tub before finally drying my hair and making my way back out into the common area where I would eventually buy a few souvenirs for some of my girls at home who should have been there with me! By now it had been about an hour and a half since I arrived.
Stepping back out into the night and walking down Divanyolou Street afterward, I felt so clean and lemony — a feeling that stuck with me throughout the night, along with a little dizziness from the heat and the massage. Every open-air restaurant and meeting place we wandered past was filled with basketball fans glued to the TV screens and smoking hookah.
I don’t recall much of the rest of the night, except that the air was filled with periodic roars of jubilation each time a successful play was made by a Turkish basketball player.
What I do recall is that it was a good night all around. (Turkey won.)