Moments from Istanbul: The Women’s Hamam

The steamy dome cupolas of the Turkish bath, accented by pin-pricks of light, are a living symbol of Ottoman architecture and heritage. The history of the Turkish bath and the cultural mythology enveloping the hamams of Istanbul like the warm steam of its marble chambers have fascinated me since my teens.

The dome in the Gedikpasa Hamam (photo from www.gedikpasahamami.com)

The dome in the Gedikpasa Hamam (photo from www.gedikpasahamami.com)

I had never been to Istanbul before this summer, but I have bathed in a hamam prior to my visit. However, my first experience bordered on harassment in a flaking old bath in a small village in western Turkey. I was a 17-year-old girl and my male masseur enthusiastically tried to scrub me in places that I am sure I did not need scrubbing. At 27, I slowly began to embrace the idea of the hamam again and I took baby steps in Tbilisi, Georgia, when I lived in the historic Abanotubani district famed for its famous sulphur baths. My experience was actually pleasant this time, since I had my own private room with a female masseuse.

The Blue Mosque and the Sultanahmet neighbourhood in Istanbul (photo by author)

The Blue Mosque and the Sultanahmet neighbourhood in Istanbul (photo by author)

So, seduced back into the romance of the hamam, on my first trip to Istanbul this August visiting one of its many historic hamams rattled up to the top of my list of things to do. My hosts from Roomkita kindly booked me into the Gedikpaşa Hamamı, a traditional bath dating back to 1475 built by Ahmet Pasha This bath is an iconic example of Ottoman architecture in Istanbul, but while it might not be Istanbul’s most beautiful bath, since Cağaloğlu Hamam, Süleymaniye Hamam, and Çinili Hamam are said to surpass its beauty, it was a bath that stayed true to the authentic hamam experience. Another interesting fact is it’s one of the few double hamams with its own women’s and men’s sections, which as a woman bather with previous hamam harassment experience was a definite advantage.

Bathing in the hamam (photo by www.gedikpasahamami.com)

Bathing in the hamam (photo by www.gedikpasahamami.com)

It was already dark when I arrived and I could even sense the steam while stepping down the steps. Humidity hung in the air, and a touch of condensation decorated the doors and glass cabinets. In the camekan, the large entrance area, adorned with floral frescoes set on the white plaster above that brighten up the marble and wood ensemble below, people relaxed and drank tea from curved glass cups after the bath. This was also the place where the men and women were separated into their designated areas.

I shuffled into the women’s section to my own cabin with a transparent glass door that left nothing to the imagination while changing. I wrapped the issued peştemal, a checkered towel, around my swimming costume and donned the pair of standard-issue plastic slippers before slapping my feet down the stairs into the steamy entrance of the bath.

The first chamber was Spartan. A small shower hung to the right and a metal ladder led up into what appeared to be a cooling pool. The room was empty so I followed the steam trickling under the crack of the door into the main bath area.

The soap massage in the hamam (photo by www.gedikpasahamami.com)

The soap massage in the hamam (photo by www.gedikpasahamami.com)

A large marble slab, called a göbektaşı, set under the pin-pricked dome is the centrepiece of the Turkish bath. Taps flanked the wall, where water gushed into marble fountains. Round plastic receptacles, which I discovered shortly were used for washing, bobbed up and down in the overflowing water.

The origin of the Turkish bath is more likely to be traced back to the Roman or Greek form of bathing, but eventually became a cornerstone of Turkish culture. Partly a tradition passed down over history, where the Turkish bath has three rooms – a warm room, the hot room and the cooling room – which recalled the trinity of the tepidarium, caldarium and frigidarium of the Roman Thermae. There is also a religious component to the baths in Turkey, where it is custom to perform ablutions (one type being full body, ghsul, the other form being wudu, only focusing on the hands, face and feet) before prayer in Islam, so it was no coincidence that most hamams were located close to a mosque.

Getting a scrub down in the hamam (photo by www.gedikpasahamami.com)

Getting a scrub down in the hamam (photo by www.gedikpasahamami.com)

A large woman in a black bikini directs me towards a sauna room. She commands ten minutes and ushers me through the small door. The sauna here is similar to those found in most spas. Hot coals heat up the wood paneled room, but staring out the condensation on the glass brings me back into the Ottoman hamam. Here the objective is to sweat out the impurities. The temperature is not as abrasive as in most traditional saunas, but enough to feel like I was drenched in a bucket of water in minutes.

Now that I had opened my pores and sweated out the dirt and toxins, it was time to wash. I grabbed a circular plastic bowl, sat down on the marble bench and rinsed myself off in splashes. I watched the girls around me as I cooled myself down by pouring water over various sections of skin.

Everyone in the room, except the masseuses, were foreign, which is sadly to be expected. Hamams are a dying breed the world over, where even countries like Iran call out for tourism to save their dying baths. Some women have no shyness where nudity is concerned, stripping off naked and tossing their peştemal aside before bathing, while others cling to her loincloths in an attempt to guard their modesty. But on the octagonal göbektaşı, which fits four girls comfortably as the masseuses scrub and pound them with soap foam, it’s required to strip down to your bikini bottoms. Inhibitions are quickly forgotten, and there is a quiet peace between us strangers. The women’s hamam has always been a haven for ladies, who once even used the baths as a social venue.

Orientalist fantasy of the hamam - Jean-Léon Gérôme, Women at a Bath, Salon of 1885.

An example of the common Orientalist fantasy of the hamam found in Western art: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Women at a Bath, Salon of 1885.

While the barriers between women are relaxed, the hamam is not by any means the Orientalist fantasy of sexual looseness often presented in Western art. Part of its mythology is misunderstood from its depiction in art and literature by men in the past. Away from men, the women only hamam was an entirely different experience to my introduction to the Turkish bath back when I was 17. In a place with only women, and women of all denominations, I found it a place to actually feel comfortable in your own skin. Watching women of all shapes, sizes, ages and figures is the antidote to perfect photoshopped models and the continuous bombardment of perfection from the media. Thin women, larger women, older women all have their own beauty here under the dome of the hamam.

The cooling off pool (photo by www.gedikpasahamami.com)

The cooling off pool (photo by www.gedikpasahamami.com)

The marble feels warm as I lie down on the göbektaşı as my masseuse scrapes off the dead skin with a rough glove called a kese. The feeling is strange; I feel like a fish being descaled. The new skin feels baby soft as she sends me back to the fountain to rinse off the specs of dirt and dead skin while another girl goes through the same motions. Soon I am called back with a slap on the marble and some firm eye contact before I am covered in soap suds and being kneaded like an unbaked loaf of bread. I try to relax, even though her touch is firm, as the room echoes with song. The Turkish women begin to sing to each other as they go about their work of scrubbing and massaging visitors to the baths.

My muscles feel rejuvenated, although a little sore. The massage is short, but any longer and the discomfort could turn into pain, since in the hamam it’s less about pleasure and more about pummeling you back into shape. Knots have no choice but to unwind under the masseuse’s touch, and even the stubbornest muscles finally relax. The final massage focuses on the head, which simply involves having shampoo lathered and my curls massaged out for a few minutes before I’m ushered to the door and towards the cooling pool.

It’s late at night, and the blue-tiled pool is dark. I climb up the metal ladder and step in. The depth comes up to my neck and the cool water over my body feels perfect after lying in steam for the better part of half an hour. I lie on my back and float, since for a moment I have the pool to myself. I can make out the holes in the ceiling, which I try to picture during the day when the natural light streams through into the bath, but for that quiet moment, I never felt more comfortable and relaxed in myself.

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View over to Süleymaniye Mosque from the Topkapi Palace Harem (photo by author)

View over to Süleymaniye Mosque from the Topkapi Palace Harem (photo by author)

This is my first story from my collection of moments from my recent trip to Istanbul. I was invited to Istanbul as the guest of the co-founders of Roomkita, a Turkish startup company that offers hotel search via partners such as Booking, Hotels.com, HRS, Otel, among others, with over 600,000 properties in more than 200 countries. This new meta-search site helps travellers not only to find the best hotel to suit their budget, but also offers them the chance to find the best place by location, TripAdvisor ratings, as well as other factors such as amenities.

I would also like to thank the Great Fortune Hotel for hosting me in conjunction with Roomkita.

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