|The tradition of the Turkish bath extends far back to a time before a Turk had reached Anatolia. When the Turks arrived they brought with them one bathing tradition and were confronted with that of the Romans and Byzantines. The traditions merged and the Turkish Bath or Hamam was born which under the Ottomans became an indispensable part of daily social life.
One of the finest examples is the Cemberlitas Hamam in the heart of Istanbul. The mother of Sultan Murat III built this grey marble building in 1584. Designed by the legendary Turkish architect Mimar Sinan the bath is one of the most important works of 16th century Ottoman architecture.
The Cemberlitas Hamam provides a traditional Turkish bath that is more than just a spa treatment - it is a glimpse into centuries of tradition in historic and majestic surroundings.
Cemberlitas Hamam was a short stroll away from my hotel. I paid $15 for
a bath and massage combo and was showed to a changing room on the second
floor. Downstairs, in a sort of courtyard, men were sitting, wrapped in
their towels and chatting The attendant unlocked the room and left the
key with me. I guess I got the whole room as my personal locker. In the
room was a small divan with a clean towel made of rough cotton (called
pestemal) and a pair of plastic slippers.
After disrobing, wrapping the pestemal around my waist and putting on the slippers, I locked the changing room and headed downstairs. Several other attendants guided me to the hamam area. The room was round and was entirely marble. In the center was a round marble platform about 3 feet high with a slight peak at the center.
The only light came from a single bulb hanging from the dome-shaped ceiling and a concentric array of small glass spheres, which allowed shafts of light to cast interesting shadows. Along the outside wall of the room were small alcoves, each with its own basin and a plastic bowl for washing. I was left in the room with no idea what to do.
I watched another man come in and head for one of the alcoves to wash himself briefly and then he laid down on the marble slab. So, I did the same. The slab was warm and toasty. People lay with their heads towards the center of the slab. I realized that the further up you laid on the slab, the warmer it was.
Three men were laying on the opposite side, on their stomachs, carrying on a casual conversation in Turkish. It felt like a social place to relax. A guy came and took my "massage ticket" from me, but then left me. A couple of guys laid down next to me. One of them was just as confused as I was. He asked me if someone would come to do the massage or you have to ask them. I said I didn't know either. These guys had come from Greece. I later found out that the masseuse leaves you to relax and warm up your muscles for about 20 minutes before beginning the bathing and massage.
The masseuse did not speak any English. He signaled to me to lay down at the edge of the marble slab. The masseuse rubbed me with a super-abrasive hand mitt called kise that takes off one or more layers of skin followed by a rinsing at the basin in the alcove.
During the bathing process, you make several trips to the basins where you get a shampoo (with hand soap) and a little rub-down. Now the fun really begins — the soaping and massaging. This is accomplished by the masseur dipping a large cotton cloth bag in water and rubbing it with pure olive oil soap, filling the bag with air and forcing the air out along with masses of soap bubbles.
Once I was covered in a mountain of foam the masseur began a thorough, thirty-minute vigorous kneading and rubbing of front and back, arms and legs, neck and shoulders. It was a very rough massage, especially when he pressed down on my legs and arms and my knees and elbows jammed into the marble slab.
the body massage, the masseuse signaled for me to sit next to the basin
then he proceeded to give me a shampoo and scalp massage.
After a final rinse, I was led back to the slab and the masseuse left. The whole bathing process, including the initial 20 minute warm-up takes about an hour. Following this, no one tells you when your time is over. You can lay as long as you want on the marble slab.
I continued to lay on the slab for another 20 minutes or so, flipping myself a few times to feel the warmth on my chest and on my back. I was now starting to sweat. I went to one of the alcoves for a final rinse and then headed out of the main hamam room. I was greeted by an attendant who handed me two more towels, one to dry my hair and a fresh one to wrap around my torso.
Many men were sitting in the courtyard-style room and relaxing. Some were drinking tea or coffee. I headed upstairs to my changing room.