(All images in this post have been taken from the Çemberlitaş Hamamı website)
When I traveled to Istanbul, a little over a year ago, I didn’t have a lot of time to plan it. What I did know was that it will be an experience for each of the senses. Even though the trip wasn’t quite planned, I had researched the destination well. Beginning with reading and loving Orhan Pamuk in the years before, learning a little about Ottoman history, google image searching Sinan’s buildings, scrolling through #istanbul on instagram, plus the expected run through of top 10 lists of just about everything in Istanbul. I had for years filled my heart and mind with a picture of Istanbul that I couldn’t wait to experience. So when I was buying the flight tickets, I knew that I would fill those 4-5 days with mostly architectural and street photography, food (read baklava), a ferry ride or two between the European and Anatolian sides, minimal shopping (a peştemal was all I cared for- I don’t shop unless needed), and a few hours at the hammam.
The hammam was more about experiencing a tradition that has persevered for a few centuries, than the draw of wellness and relaxation. That the hammams are monuments in themselves, some designed by master architects such as Mimar Sinan, and many still standing since the 1500s without any upgrades, made the appeal all the more stronger. Little did I know that after lugging a DSLR throughout the trip for a total of 40 hours, my back would beg for some respite. It was the wisest decision to defer the hammam visit to the end of the trip.
My hammam shortlist included Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam, Çemberlitaş Hamamı, Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı and the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı. The common thread in all of these hammams is that they were built by Sinan. That is how intrigued and interested I was by Sinan’s life and work, especially since I read somewhere that he helped design the Taj Mahal. The timelines don’t match at all (Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632, and Sinan died in 1588), but it might be that one of Sinan’s apprentices was one of the many architects involved in designing the Taj Mahal, like they were for other impressive buildings in Istanbul and the region.
I eventually chose to go to the Çemberlitaş Hamamı. It is one of the oldest bath houses in Istanbul and stands today like it did when it was built. I was also short on time at the end of the trip and Çemberlitaş was walking distance from my hotel. I decided to go there early in the morning. Open from 0600 until 0000 every day, and with no reservation requirement, the bath house lets you visit any time! All you need to do is show up.
Given the architecture and size of these hammams, I wouldn’t blame you if you expect to enter a compound with grand gates and doorways. The reality couldn’t be far from it. The entry to the hammam was a non-descript glass door within a grid of equally sized doors that led to restaurants and shops in a very busy street. Unsure if I was at the right place (even though it read Çemberlitaş Hamamı on the door), I walked in with hesitation. I was immediately greeted by a lady sitting on the left, in a wooden box. That was the reception. My options were clear and simple. A self-service for 80 Liras and a Bath, Scrub & Soap massage for 125 Liras. One could opt for an add-on oil massage, but I chose not to. I chose to get the Bath, Scrub & Soap service even though enough reviews warned me of the additional services being perfunctory.
The ticket gets you disposable underwear, a peştemal and an exfoliation mitten known as ‘kese’. You then walk into the women’s section. Hammams have always had separate sections for men and women. Through the years, Hammams have served many purposes. It was a community hub for social gatherings, potential wives were scouted and examined by mothers for their sons, gossip and rumours were exchanged, marriage proposals were made, and many a business deal were cracked in the steam and heat of a turkish bath house. Hammams also served as the proving ground for emerging architects who would strive to create an impeccable dome to establish their merit. A perfect hammam dome, and the next stop could be a bigger project, such a mosque with multiple domes.
After paying and getting my hammam kit, I made my way through another small door into the women’s section. The space suddenly opened up to a courtyard encompassed by two levels of balconies on each side. I climbed up the stairs to the next floor, where I picked a changing room in a corner. Strangely, these changing rooms reminded me of the Japanese shoji partitions- light and translucent, as if temporary. Except, they’ve been there much longer that I could imagine. I undressed, peeling off each layer insulating me from that winter. I slid my feet into a rubber slipper, wrapped myself in my peştemal and carried another with me downstairs. I was then led into the main dome. As I walked in through the door, another large space opened up. What is with these buildings and their deceiving sense of scale, built purposely to surprise you at every step? It was hot, sticky and steamy, but I could feel an invigorating energy right away. I looked up, knowing very well what to expect. The dome above was expansive and had holes through it, placed strategically centuries ago by Sinan. In the middle of this circular room was a large stone platform, octagonal in shape I think. I wondered for a moment how he had envisioned it, and whether this is what he was going for- pillars of light streaming through an impossibly large dome, diffused by a cloud of steam, and ending on a white marble platform, illuminating the bodies that rested on it. I was directed to lay down on the stone platform, which was heated from below. When I asked how long, I was told to lay there as long as I wanted. So I did. I first spread my peştemal and lay on it, while still wrapped in one. There was only one other person there (benefits of being there early). She had chosen to be completely undressed. A while later, it seemed like a good idea and I unwrapped myself from the peştemal and chose to tuck it under my head. Gradually, I felt the the heat from the stone permeate my skin and bones. My battered, aching back began easing, as if melting away. Within a few minutes, I had done away with both peştemals. Soon another lady joined us to partake in the serenity, just as an attendant brought down a few buckets full of water on the stone platform. There are very few times and places in the world I have felt such peace. I would alternate between shutting and opening my eyes. With my eyes shut, I would listen to that constant trickle of water that filled ornate marble basins in the periphery of this large room. Water that flowed gently from ancient brass faucets, that have probably existed since Sinan put them there. Sometimes I’d open my eyes to look up at those beams of light, and the the condensation collecting on the concave surface of the dome, like stars in the sky. Every now and then, a large drop would fall and splat on the platform. An attendant came to check if I was ready for the next step. Recognizing the blissful smile I had on my face, she knew I needed more time just laying there. After a while, I chose to get up not because I was ready, but because I was being waited upon! The lady then approached me with a large brass bowl (that I wish i could steal and take home) and some soap. She started mixing and foaming the suds in a little bucket with my kese. I couldn’t tell if it was the technique or the soap that created that much foam. Soon she started spreading it all over me. What followed was a soaping and scrubbing session that felt like one of those baths I got from my mother, right after I’d return from a day playing in the mud! If you want to revisit the baths your mother gave you as a kid, go to a turkish bath house! Somewhere during the bath, I got a strong and effective soap massage. My back thanked the burly Turkish lady, who unfortunately spoke no English! There was little exchanged between us, save a few instructions from her to me. “Straight”, “Left”, “Lay down”, “No, No, other side”, “Close eyes”, and woosh, a bucket full of beautiful, warm water was poured over me. 15-20 minutes later, she was done, and I returned to my favoured position. Flat on my back, looking up at the dome and it’s beams of light. It was steamier than before. I turned around, lay on my stomach for one last time. I might have even napped! By this time, I was all by myself. Just what I had hoped for.
At some point, I woke up and realised it was time to leave, not because I was done, but because I had a flight to catch later in the day. I walked to the next room, where I had to retire my peştemals in a bin and return to a the modern, fluffy variant. Such a disappointment after the raw yet comfortable peştemal that had begun feeling like my skin. I was then led to another corner in the large courtyard meant for what I can only describe as communal hair drying! Mirrors, 6-7 hairdryers plugged in, combs, moisturisers, creams… I tried to imagine the space in the evening. I was glad to be there early in the morning. I went back to my cabin to get dressed, thanked and tipped the lady who attended me she was waiting close to the door) and made my way out of the women’s section. I even asked them if I could run back and take a picture, but was met with a shake of the head that told me I wasn’t the first one asking for it! Once out, the last stop was made at the hammam shop where I bought the softest and lightest peştemal robe for Sebastian and myself. It has now become a mainstay in my daily life. He doesn’t wear his though. It has too many tassles, apparently!