How do you visit Turkey and not go to the Turkish bath? Well, I suspect lots of people manage, but they would be missing out on the opportunity to strip naked and be ordered around by a man in a loincloth for a couple of hours.
The brochure for the Çemberlitaş Hamami says that the bath was commissioned in 1584 by the wife of Sultan Selim II. There are gauzy photos of bath salts, soaps on ropes, and beautiful people (mostly women) reclining with beatific expressions wearing strategically draped coverings.
How could you resist the sheer, unctuous ecstasy of a five hundred thirty year old Turkish bath built by a sultan’s wife? I couldn’t. Not to mention the history. I yearned to lie on the very marble reclined upon by sultans and such.
I was all in. Besides, travel is terrible on your body. You sleep on weird beds with all sorts of crazy pillows. The one I’m using now has the size and texture of an anvil. Then there’s all that lugging of luggage and the airplane rides and the walking and schlepping and such. Sometimes you just need to recline on a five hundred thirty year old piece of marble, sweat out the stress of the day, and be massaged back to wholeness. Besides, according to the brochure, a visit to a traditional Turkish bath even “increases the happiness hormone.” Yes! That’s what I need! I’m a most happy fella, but I’ll always sign up to increase that hormone.
Janine agreed. She wanted more happiness hormone too.
Better still, it was a chilly, drizzly day in Istanbul – perfect for a bath.
We descended the stairs into the hammami and were greeted by a woman who handed us small cardboard boxes with scrubbing mitts inside. Janine also received a pair of black underpants. We were then sent to our respective sections. The lounging ladies with shimmering skin and faraway eyes go to the right. The chiseled gents with the six pack abs, strong jaws, and good haircuts go to the left.
Upon entry to the men’s section, I was immediately struck by the lack of soaps on ropes. There was also no piped in strains of Enya or seashore to calm my frazzled nerves. I was beginning to get the feeling that this experience would not involve essential oils either.
Nope, I was sent upstairs to remove my clothes and wrap a little cloth around my waist. I spent a little time experimenting with different ways to make sure that the cloth would stay in place, because to get to the men’s hammam, you have to walk back through the lobby. I sucked in my gut as best I could and made my break for the men’s spa.
Once inside, a fellow gestured toward the shower, and I dutifully performed my ablutions. After that, I joined the group of well-fed gentlemen who were laid out in the center of the room like tunas at a fish market. The hammam is an impressive room. There’s a massive round marble slab in the middle and a high domed ceiling with tiny windows letting in a bit of light. I could be in the sixteenth century except for a single bare lightbulb that hung down from to top of the dome. It’s pretty wet in here and it’s just a regular light bulb with no weatherproofing or anything, I thought. How could that be legal?
Oh, and what’s that I smell? After consulting my mental olfactory catalogue, I determined that the room smelled vaguely of pee. Five hundred and thirty years of it, I guessed. If this is aromatherapy, I’ll pass.
I reclined on the slab for a few minutes more, pondering the light bulb and the pee when a felt a tug on my toe. I looked up to find a fellow with a weird glint in his eye clad only in a cotton sarong gesturing for me to follow him. All of a sudden I wondered if I was part of some Stanford-funded psychological experiment. If you take a man’s clothes and put him in a strange setting and then have some wild-eyed Turk tug on his toe, will he acquiesce like a docile lamb? Yep.
The fellow led me to another part of the room and says, “lay down.” I did, of course.
My Turkish friend then took the scrubbing mitt I was issued when I arrived, which I had been carrying around like a baby blanket, and used some kind of abrasive matter to remove a thin layer of skin from most of my body. When he finished with one part of me he barked another command. “Turn over,” “sit up,” “lay down.” It was like Turkish Simon Sez.
I couldn’t decide if I was in a Turkish bath or a Turkish prison.
Then he attempted to break the tension with a little conversation. “Where from?”
“America,” I offered. He grunted. That was it. The small talk was over. I decided that he was collecting demographic information for a study.
When the scrubbing subsided, he ordered me to sit back up, at which point he began dumping water over my head. Then he commanded me to lay down again, and I decided that I was simply in puppy training class.
I closed my eyes and pondered my life for a moment, when I felt a whispy, soft cloud of something that felt like powder puffs or cotton candy. I cracked one eye open to see that I was now covered in big, fluffy clouds of soapy froth. I don’t know if they have the world’s largest kitchenaid in the next room, but my buddy has produced a soft, luxurious lather. He lathered me up this way and that. I must say it was kind of nice.
Before I could enjoy myself too much, I was ordered to sit up again and my friend began throwing buckets of water at me like I was on fire.
There was a brief lull. Part one, it seemed, was over. My attendant had one more bit of communicating to do, however. He began making a series of intimidating gestures that made me understand that if I would ever be allowed to retrieve my clothes that he would appreciate a tip. Those gestures included pointing at me, rubbing his fingers together, pointing at his eyes and mine, which is a joke in the rest of the world, but clearly not here, and then pointing to the only other thing he was wearing, a little plastic tag with the number ten on it. Got it. Give money to Mr. Ten because he’s watching me.
When this little exchange ended, he pointed back to the slab and said “lay down,” which I did, of course. I guess the point is to break the customer down before you build him back up, like the army or the New York public schools of my youth. The effort has succeeded. I have been broken like a fresh recruit at West Point.
A few minutes later, there was another tug on my big toe, and a slightly denser, older fellow, Mr. Thirty Two, who was also only wearing a sarong (Janine reported that the masseuses wear black bikini tops and bottoms), led me into a room full of massage tables that looked more or less like the McDonald’s of massageries. I guess you could call it an actual sweat shop!
Mister Thirty Two was a little less guttural than his colleague. The conversation was familiar, though. “Where from?” “California,” I said. “San Francisco!” he replied. How did he know?
Mister Thirty Two rubbed me with oil this way and that, keeping a respectful distance from my personal effects. I appreciated that. After half an hour or so I was released to the shower. As I was showering, some guy started banging on the shower stall shouting “Hallo! Hallo! Woman!” This one had me stumped. Was he calling me a woman? Was he telling me that there’s a woman in the shower? I opened the shower and he pointed toward the lobby. “Woman.” Ah, I think he was telling me that Janine was waiting for me in the lobby. I peered out into the lobby. There were a number of European looking women, but none that I recognized. “Not my woman,” I told the fellow, and retreated to the marble slab for a final round of basting.
I don’t know if my happiness hormone had been increased, but after all that, I must admit that I was feeling pretty good.
There is something profoundly intimidating about being ordered around, nearly naked, by a series of guttural, minimally dressed and even more minimally communicative Turkish men, but as I emerged into the Istanbul evening cleaner, shinier, minus a small amount of dermis, I smiled. The folks back home will enjoy this one, I thought.