Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Taking A Turkish Hamam

Looking across the rooftop of the Suleymaniye Hamam
Istanbul is known for many things.  As the point where the East meets the West it is a giant cultural mixing bowl.  It brings together christian churches and grand old mosques while masterfully blending the old world with the modern and new. Ottoman, Turkish and Asian cuisines combine to grace tables with some of the best food combinations I have ever tasted.  Istanbul is also known for its hamams, or Turkish baths.  Because of this, Glenn and I decided that our own Turkish vacation wouldn't be complete without partaking in this tradition ourselves.

On the recommendation of our hotel, we made reservations at the Suleymaniye Hamam and set off not knowing exactly what to expect.  Truly traditional hamams are separated by gender but the Suleymaniye billed itself as a hamam for couples and families so we were immediately skeptical of its level of traditionalism. A check of online reviews of the hamam revealed mainly positive comments and we did like the idea that we could experience this together so we decided that this was the right choice for us.

Save the impressive domed rooftop, the outside of the building was non-descript, so much so that it was almost sketchy.  What we found inside was a totally different story.  (I would have taken pictures but didn't bother to bring my camera since the only place cameras were allowed was in the lobby area.  Besides, I'm not one to post pictures of myself in a bikini).  The lobby had a rustic feel with its wooden beams but it was also welcoming with lush greenery and lounge chairs scattered throughout the cavernous room.  More importantly, it looked immaculately clean. 

Our money was collected and the entire hamam experience was explained to us.  After being handed traditional wraps (pestemals) and wooden slippers (takunya) we were escorted into private changing areas. Once changed we were then lead through a series of marble lined hallways into an even more cavernous steam room where we were told to sit, or lay if we chose, on a marble slab for approximately 40 minutes.   This is supposedly where the Sultan took his baths.  The hamam is heated with a wood fed fire and kept at a temperature between 40 and 60 degrees Celsius.  There were a handful of other couples in the room so we found our own little spot and settled in. 

We were informed that this steam session would allow the impurities to escape from our bodies.  All I can say is yikes was it hot.  So hot that it made hot flashes feel like nothing.  It was a dry heat though so periodically we would make our way over to a water basin where we could cool down by dousing ourselves with either tepid water that was sitting in stone basins or more brisk water that flowed from the taps.  Over and over again I found myself opting for the later.  After my body adjusted to the new atmosphere I started to really enjoy the intense heat.

The scrubbing
When our 40 minutes of impurity purging were over, two towel-clad young men ushered us into the semi-private soaping and scrubbing room where we were instructed to lay down on marble slabs that were slightly smaller in size than  twin beds.  We were alternately doused with warm then freezing cold water before being slapped with hot sudsy loofah-like towels.  My body was soon enveloped in copious amounts of olive oil soap.  No one ever told me that a Turkish bath was relaxing and as my masseur set to work I felt as though my body was being scrubbed, prodded, and poked to within mere inches of my breaking point.  I think I was in sensory overload.  There were moments when the entire process hurt but those were quickly replaced with a sense of comfort.  The soapy massage touched on muscles I never knew I had and soon the aches I had developed from our long walks throughout the hilly city were massaged away.  The intense scrubbing and massaging was followed by a dousing of very cold water that rinsed away all of the suds. The brisk water quickly brought me back to  my senses and left my entire body with a tingling sensation.

Post rinse we once again sat in the steam room before being swathed in a new set of dry wraps and relaxing over cups of hot apple tea.  I now know where the expression squeaky clean comes from.  The combination of intense heat and even intenser scrubbing must have removed every dead skin cell from my body. 

This hamam was an experience and I can now cross it off of the list of things to try.  Will I do it again?  Maybe.  But not before I regrow my lost layer of skin.

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