Archive for July, 2010
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.