Hammam Guide

Çemberlitaş Hamam: great for friends, especially if they pay.

by oldskool on Jun.12, 2009, under Sultanahmet hamams, Uncategorized

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:

Walk in, pay most of your retirement or college fund on the left.  If you get a massage, they’ll give you a little plastic ticket.  March upstairs, change in a little (restored) cubby, and come back down and hand your ticket to one of the keseci’s hanging out by the juice stand.  Enter the hamam, hang out for about 10 minutes on the large table.  Notice the beautiful marble surface, clean basins, and dappled light coming from cavernous dome above.  It’s really quite nice.  Eventually, your keseci will come over, and you can enter massage-land, or you can put him off for another 15 minutes like I usually do.  Trust me, the extra time in the moist, hot room will result in about 50% more skin being scraped off you this way, which is the point.  The keseci will do his dirty deeds there on the large gokbek, and then take you into the antechamber for a good shampoo.  Take a shower, and you’re done. The massage is good and thorough.  After you change, tip the keseci 5 TL, and there’s no smoking in the salon.

A couple general notes:

I can only speak for the guy’s section.  I hear the ladies’ section is spa-like with light-colored wood paneling and floral scents.  Go figure.

Just as you enter the guy’s hamam, you’ll notice a bunch of sturdy-looking Turkish men crammed together in a small room to the left.  These are the kesecis, or massage-makers.  If they weren’t all wearing towels and chatting, or you might think they were waiting for arraignment or something.  Anyways, these guys seems to constantly rotate through clients throughout the day.  There are far more of them than massage requests, so I imagine the order is strict and they’re eager to get through as many people as possible.

The good stuff:

I’ve had a few fairly memorable massages at Çemberlitaş, and my friend Sally had her first ever hamam or hamam-like experience here.

Sally’s massage:

As Sally mentioned several times before entering, she had never been to anything like a hamam.  She doesn’t even like being naked or touched excessively around other people.  So perhaps there was a little perverse sadism in our encouraging her to get a massage.  My belief in the essentially good nature of hamams led me to think it would be more therapeutic than traumatic.  And…it was!  But the story’s still worth a look.

Sally entered the hamam proper with, I’ll say it, panties and a bra on.  The panties were required by the rules, as Çemberlitaş doesn’t want to upset the senstitive tourists.  The bra, on the other hand, is optional, and unusual for a massage.  Sally is sitting on the gokbek when her keseci strolls over.  The woman is big, matronly, and has no bra on.  Sally notices this because the woman’s mammaries are al-l-most hanging past her belly button, as those of old, large women tend to do.  The woman smiles, and indicates for Sally to remove the bra.  “Oh shit,” Sally thinks, and indicates she doesn’t really want to.  But the keseci knows she has the upper hand.  As Sally explains and I paraphrase, “She looks at me, right, points to her massive breasts, a kinda smiles in a way that says ‘Honey, you got tits, I got big ‘ol titties, so let’s cut the crap and do this.’  Who was I to argue?  Then, she makes me lie down on the table-thingy, and just leaves me there for ten minutes!  But it was great.  She could see I was uncomfortable with the whole situation and by just leaving me there, I got used to being nearly naked around all these other naked women.”  In the end, Sally had a great time and gave raving reviews.  I was really proud of her for enjoying herself, and for reaffirming the place of hamams my list of things that improve this world.

My massage:

My first massage at Çemberlitaş was by Hekim.  Even after I played the field a but, Hekim remains my go-to guy. Of course, the man gives a careful, thorough, rip-roaring kese.  That’s par for the course.  His massage is deliberate, as hard as you want.  The best part is his use of water temperature.  Disclaimer: I asked for a “real” massage, and he got the message.  So when he poured water over you to clean dead skin or soap off, it was scalding hot.  Awesome.  With all that skin gone, my skin was hyper-sensitive, and I think the resulting sensory input overloaded my brain for a few seconds.  This happened several times.  Then at the end, after the shampoo, Hekim poured four buckets of successively cooler water over my head.  This was the best closure to a massage I’ve ever had.

See, Hekim understands sensory perception and the sensual journey more than most kesecis I’ve had.  Most of these guys acsribe to more-is-better philosphy, as in more pressure, more skin rubbed off, more slaps on the back to indicate you’ve had a successful hamam experience.  Personally, I reserve my judgement.  I agree that stimulating one’s senses and bringing the client more in touch with a sensual reality is part of a keseci’s role.  But most guys are like watching a Ridley Scott action movie, all bang and no narrative.  Hekim brings a subtle touch to the grand experience, approaching a Steven Spielberg (it is still touristy, after all).

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9 comments for this entry:
  1. cyberiad

    My Cemberlitas experience the other day was my first hammam. Are there actual baths in a Turkish bath? By “bath”, I mean being immersed in hot water, as in a bathtub, hot tub, warm pool, jacuzzi, or similar.

    I’m male and my travelling companion is female. We went to Cemberlitas hammam, which has separate sections for men and women. She says there was a warm pool in the women’s section. I myself was never fully immersed. I experienced the alcoves where I bathed myself from deep stone sinks, the hot stone where I lay down and sweated and was given a rubdown and soaping, and the men’s showers. Did I miss something? Is there a bathtub, hot tub, hot pool somewhere I didn’t see? Does her description of the women’s section agree with other people’s experiences? Is immersion normally part of a hammam experience? Or maybe immersion is typically only for women?

  2. KMH

    Hi,

    Cemberlitas has made various alternations over the years, including the warm pool in the rear of the women’s section. I admit being pretty jealous myself when I saw it on an after-hours tour. Strictly speaking, however, a traditional hamam needn’t involve immersion or some other pool-like activity. The basic activity is the humid space and massage service. Don’t feel like you missed anything. That said, I’ve noticed pools in some hamams, including Kilis and maayyybe Ankara. They are immersion pools, not for bathing. Many of these hamams are very old, so it raises the question of some were designed with pools. Thanks for brining this up!

  3. Mark

    I’ve been to Cemberlitas: it was my first Turkish hamam and massage.

    Later I read on the internet a posting by a German hamam enthusiast who wears his underwear underneath his hamam towel…not surprising; some people are more modest than others. But I was surprised when he said most Turks do this as well. It seems to me the Turks are more modest than most Europeans, but this seems a bit much.

    Also, when I was finished up, and toweled dry and a turban put on my head, my kese started by stripping my towel right off, so that I was exposed for just a few seconds in the anteroom…I didn’t really mind, but it was somewhat of a mixed setting as customers were coming in from the lobby. Perhaps this is why people would wear their underwear.

  4. admin

    Dear Mark,
    I’m afraid there is no one consistent trend with Turkish modesty or hamam drying techniques. I’ve seen a lot of variation. Turkish men can be modest and wear underwear under their pestemel (wrap). This generally seems to fall along lines of age, class, and region. I’ve seen younger men in Istanbul baths wear underwear but not older men. But I’ve also bathed with Turkish male friends who were in their 20s who didn’t wear underwear. I’m not sure that I would go with “most” for this practice. Modesty may be an individual choice, but a feature in Turkish baths. In fact the whole pestemel and the art of washing oneself while leaving it on takes some practice and is an exercise in modesty. As for the lack of modesty in drying, I believe what you experienced occurs in tourist baths more often than local baths. There seems to be a “conveyor belt” mentality in the Istanbul tourist baths, like Cemberlitas, which, when reaching the end of the bath experience, comes down to expediency no matter who is around. Thanks for the observations and I hoped you liked your first hamam experience!

  5. Myopractor

    Wow, 1584, I’m always amazed at architecture like that, which stands the test of time. We have nothing like that here in Australia (being only 200 years old in terms of English settlement).

    Would love to visit there some day. :)

  6. MARC

    Hi are there Hammams in Istanbul where females will do the soap washing and oil massage for male customers ?

  7. admin

    Wow. Umm. Not that I know of. It is a good question though. I imagine those that do (as anything goes in Istanbul, right?!) would not be public baths in the strictest sense. If you find any, please do let us know.

  8. hamam düsseldorf

    Thanks for the observations and I hoped you liked your first hamam experience!

  9. hamam world

    Thanks for the observations and I hoped you liked your first hamam experience!

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