Firuz Ağa Hamamı, Çukurcuma Cd. 6, Çukurcuma, Beyoğlu. Men early AM and normal PM, Women midday. About 35 TL.
A German friend was coming to the city and he asked me to take him to the best hamam in town. I knew it was an impossible question but yet I gave it a try.
I asked around, browsed the web, read some books and I really didn’t have any clear idea. Even though I had already been here for a couple of months I hadn’t had any hamam experience myself.
I knew I didn’t want one of those big hamams which were far out of my budget but also seemed an artificial experience. With that juvenile eagerness of the traveler I was looking for the “real thing”.
When I finally met up with my friend I simply was going to tell him I was broke and we should better go for çay. He refused and we went to the hamam that is in the corner of my house. It was close and it was a Thursday afternoon and because of work and time that seemed as our best option.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about this place. Especially after reading the big Mehmet story I wasn’t all that keen to come here but I didn’t want to negatively predispose my friend so I didn’t tell him anything and simply accepted to go. For me it was also interesting; regardless of the result, I was going to experience my first hamam.
The entrance was small and the people working there very friendly. The tension began to build up. I was excited to wear the little peştamal and to be guided into the chambers of the hamam.
Architectonically I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful. I wasn’t expecting more than one big room. It was all very pleasant to see all the little chambers, with different temperatures, different qualities of light.
There were about 4 other people in the place. We learned what to do by mimicking their behavior. We chose our marble basin and began pouring water on us. It was really nice. It wasn’t extremely hot so it was quite very enjoyable and my friend and I hadn’t seen each other in almost two years so it was a fantastic environment to catch up with all the life stories.
In an opposite corner two Turkish men were doing the same, just chatting. The heat made the conversation stop every now and then; just to catch your breath, to relax, to pour some more cold water.
I really love “sweat houses” curiously because in general I don’t like the heat much. But I like them as transitional spaces.
In every society there are some characters who are allowed to break the social rules, to live in spaces in between. This is the case of the shamans. However for the average folk, who can’t live in between worlds there are spaces where rules can be broken. Sweat houses tend to be one of them.
I could see this was one of those places by the tender way these very tough men were pouring water over one another, on how relaxed they were.
The heat got too much for me in one moment so I moved to a different chamber where I could cool down.
There was another guy. As soon as I entered the room he engaged in conversation with me. He spoke a little English, enough to have one of these pleasant slow conversations. With the same curiosity that I have encountered in many other Turkish, he asked me on my whereabouts and we spoke about hamams for a little while. Then he washed my back –rules can be broken– and pour water on me. I did the same for him.
Soon my friend was joining us along with another traveler who ended up in the same place. The new guy was from Iran and with anthropological curiosity I began talking to him and asking him about hamams in his country. He wasn’t eager to talk but seemed amused by the conversation going on.
And that’s how it continued; we just began talking to the newcomers when we were apart and talking about life when we were together. Everyone was talking among themselves, just cut slow phrases, shorter according to the temperature of the room. Everybody was simply friendly, trying to share stories or simply smiling on the way.
Then it was time for my soap massage. I was taken to the smaller coolest chamber. By the eyes that you develop through experiencing things over an over the masseur could tell I wasn’t much for heat. He was the older of the three men who work on this place. I can tell that he has spent his entire life among these walls where his physical defects didn’t matter at all, what mattered was his ability for his job.
I lay down in the cold gray marble and felt the foam fall all over me, falling slowly along with some air and the occasional touch of the tissue. Not so far I could hear one of the Turkish men singing a distant song with that sense of melody that reminds me of how far away I am from familiar places. It was sensorial heaven.
It was my friend’s turn. He was taken in the main chamber, the hottest one with most intricate details: The little niches on the wall, the skylight glasses, the white shine of the marble table. I then had the voyeuristic pleasure of watching him being washed, taken care of in the abandon of a child. It was beautiful to see him so strong and yet in surrender.
This hamam experience was fantastic. It had everything I could dream of in my best hamam fantasies, the broken rules, the friendliness edging on flirting, the songs, the beauty. We simply didn’t want to leave but the time came and we left utterly pleased about this great evening.
We were so happy that we decided to come back, on Friday night after work just to repeat this adventure. Little did we know how easily the rules of transitional places change from one instant to the next, using codes that will long escape our foreigner eyes.
We went back, same beautiful place, same corner of my street; a completely different place. The people working there welcomed us in friendly manner and placed my friend and I in the same dressing room. None of us has a problem with nudity or close physical contact both of us being long time friends and naturists so this change probably wouldn’t even had made it to my mind map if it wasn’t for all the other changes.
Today, a Friday night, the ambience was denser. I not only mean that it was much hotter, much steamier. The moment we walked in there it felt already as a different experience. We went to the main chamber. The idea was to follow the same procedure as the previous night. Today, even though there was about the same amount of people as the last occasion, nobody was talking.
My friend and I were much more silent too. It was partly the extreme heat, partly the fact that we had already shared many of the day’s stories earlier at dinner, but also we were following the rules of the place.
As I have already mentioned in different areas in this same post I don’t love heat. Soon I needed to go cool down in one of the smaller, fresher chambers.
Shortly after, somebody followed me to the room. I tried some conversation but didn’t get much answer. What I did get were several glances of the guy who had an increasing erection.
I went back to my friend who during the same time had had a similar experience. Today the hamam wasn’t a place to find friends but to find lovers. We stayed there a little but longer trying to figure out the new dynamics and codes. We learned that the masseur today wasn’t as good and much more likely to touch your genitals on the way. While the first night there was the older, more experienced, ugly guy tonight there were two young men, more inexperienced in massage but more handsome and more likely to caress other parts of your body. I found one of them, the middle one, an interesting case. The first night he was also there learning to give massages, changing stages. This night he was the main masseur, dressed in a completely different way, providing a different service and he was almost a different person.
My friend did get a massage, in the fresh dark chamber. Not because of heat considerations but because in this place, if he felt like it, other hand services could easily be required.
We understood that in this forbidden encounters silence was something essential. Today there were no songs or chats and we got odd looks by talking all the time, by disturbing the anonymity of the place. The last thing we learned today was that a peştemel hanging by the entrance door of one small chambers means “attention, men working” to put it lightly. We left the place quite aware that rules change much more than we had imagined when discussing our transitional hamam experiences. That we are more Thursday evening guys.
The Cultural Historian Bathes in Üsküdar
As the introduction to this guide states, all its reviewers are academics, researchers and professors. This is undoubtedly its strength, but it may also be its weakness. We all know what these people are like: excellent at making promises, but slow when it comes to keeping them. Or maybe it’s just me. I waited for over a month before writing this review, and now, as could have been expected, my memory fails me. Add to this that I am not exactly familiar with hamams (let alone Istanbul hamams) and that I have no childhood hamam trauma to make up for my ignorance in a compelling narrative, and you’ll take my advice to switch to one of the other reports of the same hamam visit seriously.
Still there? Ok, here we go. After an inspiring lecture on Ottoman hamam culture, we decided to go to the restored fifteenth-century Atik Valide hamam in Üsküdar, actually one of the hamams that were mentioned in the lecture. Though we went unprepared and had some difficulties ourselves, it is really not hard to find. Take a right when you get off the ferry, wander for a while and then, in a little street on your left, you will recognize the hamam-like shape of the building (that is to say, the architectural historian in your midst will recognize it – if you don’t have one pay close attention). We went in.
This was going to be my first hamam visit ever – I had never been to a proper sauna either – and though I knew more or less what was going to happen I had found it hard to picture it beforehand. When I tried, the hamams in my mind were always very busy, places of social gathering (no wonder: when I googled ‘places of social gathering’ to see if this was a correct English phrase, a discussion of the hamam in the Wikipedia lemma ‘Lifestyle of the Ottoman Empire’ was my second hit) where regulars meet every week to go through the latest gossip. I found it very surprising, then, to learn that, I believe it was on a Thursday evening, the place was entirely empty; the four of us were the only ones there. This was a good thing for a first hamam visit, for though I felt a little awkward not knowing exactly what to do, the men who welcomed us were patient and seemed rather amused by our ignorance, which made me feel comfortable.
We were given slippers and towels and sent upstairs to undress, when this was done we were asked what we wanted (scrubbing and massage). We went into the bath, which I can’t compare to any other baths, but which I thought of as pleasant: clean, hot but not too hot, spacious but not too big, plain but pretty. We had been chatting and splashing on the hot stone for only a short while when the keseci came to get two of us (including me) for the kese and the massage. I would have preferred to stay in the bath longer, but other bathers had come in and they wanted to get things going, so I planned to go back to the hot room later. The scrub was fine, as far as I can judge it; from the very basic conversation I had with the kese I learned that there was a direct connection between the amount of dead skin that came off and the supposed absence of hamams in my home town. The massage was milder than I expected and therefore a little disappointing. When all this was done, I somehow was in need of fresh air and very hungry all of sudden, so unlike my company I decided not to go back to the bath, and after I’d had a quick tea while covered in towels, I dressed and went out for a smoke, and waited for the others. Altogether, it was a positive first experience. I’ll definitely go again, but next time I’ll try to stay in a little longer, and start writing my review a little earlier.
The Film Historian Bathes in Üsküdar
During my childhood my mother took me and my sisters almost every weekend to the hamam in my hometown. As I was very often one of few male children, women in the hamam were teasing me by saying: “Aren’t you old enough to visit the hamam when it’s open for men only?” And that was not the only thing that scared me. I was also afraid of the steamy heat in the hamam. I thought very often I would suffocate and die. That’s why I was very happy that I was the first of the children to be washed by my mother and brought to the waiting room where I sat down drinking my cold soft drink. When I grew older, I remained afraid of the steamy heat in the hamam and avoided going there. At the same time I was not at ease with the situation: How can a Turk avoid going to the hamam? At the moment I’m living abroad and last time I was in Istanbul and I was invited by some friends to go to the Tarihi Valide Atik Hamami in Üsküdar. I don’t know why, but I thought the time to get rid of this childish fear had come. So I decided to join my friends and went there. In the end it was a relaxing experience in the ‘deadly’ heat of the hamam!
In the film Four Rooms, four different directors take on one evening in a hotel. In this series of posts, four people take on the experience of one trip to the baths. Although the four bathed together, each has recounted their night from their own experience. Sound and the Fury meet the Atik Valide Hamamı.
Tarihi Atik Valide Hamami
Tabaklar Mah. Eski Toptassi Cad No. 98
0216 334 91 58
Men’s until 11pm
Women’s until 7pm (but will accommodate groups for later)
Hamam price: 13. 5 for Kese, 5 for Massage.
The Architectural Historian Bathes in Üsküdar
The four of us met at an interesting lecture on the hamam-patronage of the Sultan Mother Nurbanu (ca. 1525 – 1583): an archaeologist, an historian, a film historian and an architectural historian, in very different stages of hamam-experience. We decided to investigate one of the historical hamams that we had just learned about, the Atik Valide hamami in Üsküdar, part of a great complex of mosques, schools and pious foundations founded by this powerful lady in the heydays of the Ottoman Empire.
For me this was quite off the beaten track, having visited two hamams before, the beautiful yet touristy Cağaloğlu and Çemberlitaş hamams in the Old Town. From these visits I remembered being conducted from one room to the other by bathing assistants who did not speak any other language than Turkish, so I was not sure what to expect in this place which was supposedly hardly ever visited by foreigners. Could it be even more mysterious and confusing?
However, my slightly nervous anticipation was nothing compared to the anxiety of my hamamophobic Turkish friend. He had not visited a hamam since his childhood, when his mother would take him there all day, which he hated. A combination of uncomfortable heat and being uncomfortable with nascent homosexual feelings had prevented him from ever going again, until we took him to this place.
Upon approaching the supposed location of the hamam, a couple of modest domes indicated that we were on the right track. The patrons welcomed us and before we knew we were asked to sit down and take off our shoes. We were handed plastic slippers (way too small for this Dutch bigfoot) and conducted upstairs to the gallery over the entrance hall, where each of us was assigned a little cabin to undress. With their glass doors these offered little privacy, but who cares. In our loincloth (peştemel) we went to the domed steamroom where we reclined on the central stone platform (göbektaşı). In terms of temperature, we really got value for our money! The heating mechanism aroused my curiosity: would there really be a little man under the floor to stoke the fire as had been illustrated in the lecture? Our Turkish friend knew that the name of this ancient profession was still used as an insult in Turkey today. When I walked towards the tap to splash myself with cool water, it occurred to me that the most intense heat was actually emanating from the walls, which made me turn back to the göbektaşı rather quickly.
I was relieved when three of us were taken to the marble massage tables, where we simultaneously enjoyed a scrub+soaping+massage. The masseurs (keseciler) kept chatting with those of us who spoke Turkish, leaving me as the only non-Turcophonic wondering what kind of things one might discuss with one’s masseur. Would it be small talk like at the hairdresser’s, or were more profound eastern mysteries being unveiled in such an intimate tête-à-tête?
My orientalist reveries came abruptly to an end when I was led to a cold shower. Feeling like a snake having just shed off its old skin, I went back into the steam room. In one of its corners there was a door with a sign indicating a “Finnish Sauna”. Expecting a dry hot sauna, I went inside and found this room to be even more steamy and wet than the last one. It was also hotter. Shrouded in mist, my friend was sitting here together with the only other visitor besides us: a young blond Turkish man. He turned out to be a university student and told us that he went to the hamam only once or twice a year. Whether there was any specific reason for his current visit remained somewhat undefined.
Soon, the heat struck me again and after taking a cold shower I decided to get back to the atrium room. Here I was awaited by a bathing attendant who wrapped me in a towel and knotted another towel around my head turban-style. I was directed towards a beach chair where tea was being served against the backdrop of an enormous wall photo of a tropical beach. A sense of giddiness got hold of me as my friends and I looked at each other, richly betoweled and beturbaned in this strangely alienating locale. We agreed that this turned out to be a very relaxing experience.
Nur Hamamı. Hamalbaşı Cad. No. 14. Beyoǧlu, Istanbul. (0212) 249 81 12. Men: 7am – 12 am. 16 YTL plus 5 YTL for kese, 5 YTL for massage.
The other day I was walking down the hill from the Galatasaray high school in Beyoǧlu toward Kasımpaşa – a well traveled stretch of street that I have been on a million times – and I noticed a small hamam on the right side. It had a sign and a set of stairs going down below street level. I was surprised at having never seen it before and made a mental note to return. I returned a week or so later after a particularly late late night out of drinking, dancing, and not quite so much sleep (the detailed reasons of which I’ll omit . I went at about 9pm or so and was beckoned into a small reception room with changing rooms to one side, a TV hanging from the ceiling, and a congenial owner. It was rather plain, an unadulterated space somehow forgotten amidst the rapidly developing and ‘chic’ landscape of Istiklal that was really more village than capital city. I changed and went into the bath which was also quite small. The room was hot enough and square. It was also completely no frills. Besides the marble göbek taşı and basins on the walls the ceiling was stained and cracked and a bit mildewy. It was not, however, dirty. One corner of the square was reserved as a separate room for shaving and depilation (traşlık odası) while another part of the bath served as a very small dry sauna. Both corners fit no more than 1-2 people.
I laid down on the marble stone and dozed in and out working up a sweat and dimly aware of the one other bather slumped against a side basin. He was an older man, grey and fleshy. He had his peştemel wrap completely off and draped across the top of his thighs so that he could wash his bits. I did note that it was only a partial wash. His tired gaze was on me and his hand moved in a regular jerky tell-tale rhythm. Oh well, I thought. No touch, no talk, no eye contact and everything will be fine. I’m content, and he will soon be as well. After he left, the keseci walked in for my services. The keseci was fairly unresponsive, despite my barrage of questions I had about bathing life which made me slightly concerned that I would be treated like a slab of meat rather than anything else. I asked him if he was from Istanbul and he grunted yes. I pressed, “not from Tokat?” He looked up, jarred and perhaps offended slightly and indicated no way. I thought it a perfectly good question – all kesecis are from Tokat. They have the monopoly on that profession. He was an exception, though perhaps of Tokat extraction. I wasn’t convinced. Surprisingly, the kese and massage were in fact quite good. Completely average and serviceable. He cleaned between each of my toes (a new but lovely method), gave me a brief but firm massage, cracked my neck from side to side, and didn’t drown me in boiling or freezing water. The water came in waves – from hot to warm to cool, as it should. His personality went the other way it seems. By the end of the session, he seemed to have warmed up to me.
When we were done, I sat outside in the reception room. The owner was very meticulously wrapping me with many towels, rubbing my shoulders and placed a little rug under my feet. I asked him some questions about hamam culture today in the 21st century and his bath. The bath was a modern one, only 21 years old. As to the lack of people, he said that it was typical in the summer months to be so, but the winter was more crowded. I was somehow skeptical. This was a forgotten basement in Beyoǧlu. Maybe it catered more to the Tepebaşı crowd, though I wasn’t sure. He also talked about age and bathing culture. According to him, bathers ranged from 20 and up. When I asked further about why the young generation didn’t bathe as much, he said it was a problem. Although everyone has baths and showers, they can never get as scrubbed clean as in a hamam. He had a good point. I don’t remember the last time I saw my grey dead skin roll off my body. The youth, he continued, also devote no time to sitting in a hamam and enjoying a quiet peaceful space for part of the day. In a country such as Turkey with about 50% percent of the population being under the age of 28. This is a significant change in hamam culture. The fast paced life indeed has claimed our solitary quiet meditative time. We can’t even ride a train without listening to something in our ear or multi-tasking. With the internet, portable and computer games, iphones and every other electronic device there is hardly any time to acquire patience anymore. Just sitting with no stimulation has become a thing of the past – or a thing one does a couple of times a year while on vacation at a beach somewhere. Although all quite obvious, I had never heard a bath owner actually talk about these things before – the bath as a place of escape, a temple of echoes in a sea of urban chaos. And this bath in the center of Beyoǧlu off Istiklal, was just that. Nothing fancy or expensive, but a perfectly serviceable hamam. I sat with him awhile and then walked back up stairs into the clamor of Istiklal.
Firuz Ağa Hamamı, Çukurcuma Cd. 6, Çukurcuma, Beyoğlu. Men early AM and normal PM, Women midday. About 35 TL.
This post is significant because it covers two firsts for me: Firuz Ağa Hamamı, and my first “gay” experience in a hamam. Together, my fellow hamam blogger and I have encountered our share of arkadaşlık — a slightly tongue-in-cheek word roughly meaning “friendship-ness”, sometimes too much — in our hamam excursions, but nothing so overt as our experience in the Firuz Ağa sıcaklık. That said, hamams’ location in the body-culture and sexual-identity worlds of Turkey makes “gay” a slippery label, for me. Perhaps the word is best reserved for David Barton gyms in Manhattan or the Turkish “saunas” on Istiklal, both of which display posters of young, sweaty, bare-chested men in the windows. But I’m getting ahead of myself. (continue reading…)
Sokullu Hamamı, Edirne; 30 TL for the full works; Men’s morning-10AM, Womans’ 10AM-5PM.
Sokullu Hamamı in Edirne is one of Turkey’s largest, and built by master hamamcı Mimar Sinan. The entrance sports a double-height, triple-vaulted portico with once-ornate columns. This directly refences the Üç Şerefeli Camii (three-vaulted mosque), a major architectural landmark in Edirne. (Sokullu Hamamı is sometimes referre to as the “Üç Şerefeli Hamamı”) Walking in, one might call the entrance a fitting welcome to the central hamam of the Ottoman Empire’s pre-Istanbul capital. The interior and seemingly obsequious keseci inside likewise uphold the pedigree this hamam’s history commands.
Prelude: I went to Sokullu Hamamı immediately after attending Kirkpinar, which means watching hours of (continue reading…)
Çemberlitaş Hamam. Men’s and Women’s separate.
Address: Vezirhan Caddesi 8, Çemberlitaş (exit at Çemberlitaş tramvay stop)
Hours: morning to night, but strangely hard to find on the internet. eh.
Prices: Bath 35TL, Massage-Kese 55TL, Massage-Kese-Oil-Hot Stones 95TL
Bevvies not included. http://www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr/hamam_english.htm
Except for the price, Çemberlitaş has everything I want in a tourist hamam. It’s old, built in 1584 by Mimar Sinan; restored, evidenced by the all-wood salon and clean, bright sıcaklık; and fully capable of handling a full range of hamam-goers, from Amish grandmother to seasoned veteran (yours truly, ahem). That range of experiences makes up the meat of this post. First, a bit about the hamam’s SOP:
This is a list from Wikipedia of Mimar Sinan’s Hamams.
For a clue to the greatest of all Ottoman architects, read this.
Hamamlar (click below to see all 48)
Dort Yol Otel Hamam, 1715 Sokak near Dort Yol, Batman. Hours: see below. 10 YTL, didn’t try the keseci.
To be fair, this is not Batman’s only Hamam. It may be Batman’s only hamam which cleverly blends the Turkish spa experience with a roadside motel aesthetic. Even down to the intermittent hot water! In other words, it’s an amazing miscegenated facility of blue tile and combi-units which may get you hot and will leave you curious. Not that I would recommend going except for the cult value.
Just to be clear, this is a short post because 1) it’s unlikely you’ll be ever be in Batman in the first place. And 2) even if you are, you shouldn’t go to this hamam ever. You should buy four portions of Batman’s delicious borek instead. The pasthanes next to the hamam are AMAZING.
The story: I inquire at the Dort Yol hotel’s desk, and even that slight hesitation, a raised eyebrow at another dumb yabanci, could have tipped me off. It was already 9:30 pm. The receptionist led me outside, around a corner, and down the side street to the basement entrance. Low ceilings and rubber slippers greeted me, as did a thoroughly disinterested looking Kurdish dude who went for the towels, silently. I dress in the adjoining divan/locker room under bright CF lighting. Then into the hamam’s main chamber. A stunningly bland, blue-tiled bathroom of a thing with a ledge around the outside, detached stone basins that slide, and a drain trench making the rounds. It’s pretty cold. The sauna’s not that hot either. I wash, scrub, get cold in the sauna, say hello to the two guys in gym shorts scrubbing each other down, and get out. Sure, I was relatively clean, and watched Saban movies in the divan room with the three guys afterwards. But this hamam experienced was only salvaged as a foil to the superlative options in Istanbul and Kilise, and I wouldn’t recommend for the unitiated.