İstanköy Hamamı. Izmir. 917 Sokak, behind the Sahlepcioğlu Mosque, Kemeraltı District
My first hamam experience was nearly ten years ago when a friend of mine took me to İstanköy Hamam in the city of İzmir. Until then, like many other Turkish city-dwellers being used to single bathing in bathtubs and showers in their bathrooms, communal bathing had been an extraordinary activity for me. Having been influenced by the Turkish idioms comprising the word ‘hamam’ I heard and the hamam scenes I saw in Turkish comedy films, travel magazines and other visual media, I was presuming the hamam a so-called ‘erotic’, ‘exotic’ and ‘authenticized’ space left in a mysterious past. This personal belief had mainly resulted from the collective cultural memory that considers the hamam as the only ethnographic figure representative of the Ottoman-Turkish bathing culture. On account of my preconditioned mindset, I was not only quite excited about what I would see and live inside İstanköy but also curious if the interior space is as mysterious as I imagined.
As we opened a short wooden door, we entered a square chamber, called soyunmalık or soğukluk, used mainly for undressing, keeping personal belongings, providing bathing equipments and making payment. At that moment, the hamam manager and employees stared at me strangely. My friend later told me that this was because I was ‘a new face’ in the hamam. The side walls of soyunmalık was plastered and painted in a light yellow color. The plasters had partially peeled off and the whole ceiling had darkened due to intense moisture. There were disrobing cabins all around, closed with translucent curtains and seemed to be added later to the original space. First, the manager locked our valuables into a small drawer and gave us its keys tied to a rubber wristband. Then, one of the hamam employees directed us to a cabin and gave each of us a piece of cloth (peştemal) to wrap around our hips. Except for beaches, I had never been such half-naked in a public space before. Yet in a public beach, sexual privacy is guaranteed with swimming suits designed to properly cover the naked body, while a thin and loose cloth is always possible to reveal it. Fortunately, my friend showed me how to wrap my peştemal tightly. Having been full of anxiety, I hardly realized how much small our cabin was for two persons to move and get dressed inside. Half of it was occupied by a wooden bed with a worn and pale divan and a simple coffee table. I had to wear one of several pairs of wet slippers which had probably been used by another bather before.
When we were both ready for the hamam ritual, we moved out of our cabin under the curious eyes of the hamam attendants. The same employee gave each of us a small bar of soap and another piece of cloth (çıkma) which has a different texture from that of peştemal and worn on the way out. After we were provided with all these ritualistic objects, my friend quickly moved towards a steel door not to get cold and I followed him. The door was a bit shorter than average human height so one had to watch his head while passing through it. This door took us to a smaller chamber, ılıklık, sheltered with two vaults and a dome in the center. A white tiling had been applied up to the mid-level of the walls and the moisture had deteriorated nearly all plastered surfaces over this level. In one of the vaulted corners some bathers were smoking while some were seated on a tiled platform in the other one. The bathers were staring at me with the same strange look but I was rather interested in the spatial ambience created with steam creeping into the space each time the door was opened and smoke mixing with light beams running from the small openings on the dome. This sublime picturesque in such a small dimmed space impressed me so much that my anxiety and stress turned into a peaceful mood after a while. I realized afterwards that this space was connected to a musty toilet area by a narrow corridor on which a small space for shaving (traşlık) was located. We spent some time in ılıklık standing and chatting with some bathers whom my friend knew before.
There was another short steel door opening to the main bathing section, sıcaklık, of the hamam. As we entered sıcaklık, I came across with the typical hamam scene I had virtually been familiar before. But this time, instead of plump ladies playing saz, singing loudly and making belly dance, there were a crowd of gay males in different states. Some were sitting next to marble water tubs (kurna) and cleaning themselves. Some had lied down on the central marble platform (göbektaşı) resting or having scrubbing and foam massage. Some were circulating around göbektaşı and some had leaned on the side walls and sending sexual invitation messages to others by bodily gestures. Sıcaklık was lighter and hotter than ılıklık, and the picturesque of steam and light were further strengthened by wet male bodies of the bathers shining under the dome. The space was divided into areas of different sizes: a central area sheltered with a big dome, four corner areas with smaller domes and four side areas with vaults. All the corners and two sides were sub-divided into smaller private bathing chambers called halvet by half-height walls. These corner halvets were busy with partners in casual sex and the others had to wait for their turn to use them. They were closed with curtains on some of which a peştemal was hanged. I learned that this was a sign to highlight privacy, thus to prevent some thoughtless bathers from entering halvet without permission. If anyone was accepted to enter, another pestemal would be hanged as an indication of a ready-to-start sexual activity. I tried to adapt myself to this social environment; spilling from head to foot some warm water in a kurna, lying on göbektaşı and watching the light beams creeping into the space from the big dome, but making no sexual activity. I also remember myself passing to ılıklık section every fifteen minutes since the high temperature in sıcaklık was too sultry for an amateur bather like me.
This first visit of mine did not take as long time as some bathers being used to spend all their day in the hamam. Although time had little relevance in sıcaklık, I realized that we had been in İstanköy for two hours by looking at the wall clock in soyunmalık through the blurred glass on the steel door in ılıklık. I told my friend that this introductory visit was satisfactory enough for me and asked if we could leave. We entered one of the halvets in sıcaklık to take off our wet peştemals and wrap our dry çıkmas instead. As we got back to soyunmalık, the sudden temperature decline made a shock-effect on me, since my skin was not adapted to such a difference in temperature. I remember myself trembling and running to our cabin. We got on our clothes quickly and came to the manager’s desk to get back our valuables and pay the fee which, I thought, was not too expensive for an ordinary hamam like İstanköy. However, every bather in Istanköy was traditionally supposed to leave a tip for the service given by the employees. After we checked ourselves in the mirror, we got out the hamam from the same wooden door into the street. As my friend asked me if I was satisfied with my first hamam experience, I was in complicated feelings. Although only one visit to a hamam (and only to İstanköy) was inadequate to answer his question, I shared with him my impression that hamam was ‘a space of extremes’: hot and cold, dark and light, sublime and ordinary, peaceful and depressing, spacious and narrow, charming and musty, lively and tiring, noisy and acoustic, etc.
In the following two years, I visited İstanköy every month, occasionally with my friends but mostly alone. The more my skin was getting adapted to humidity and temperature difference as well as the social atmosphere, the more time I was spending inside. The strange looks of people dwindled in time so I was able to make many friends there. However, I rarely had sexual activity in İstanköy, only with bathers who were (or seemed) trustworthy. After a certain time, I found myself guiding the inexperienced bathers and introducing them the details of a typical hamam ritual. I also learned some of the terminology of a gipsy-origined language peculiar to gay culture. It was obvious that not all the bathers were visiting İstanköy for bathing. This obviously made sense to me since the physical conditions of the hamam was (and still is) not appropriate for a full cleansing and detoxification ritual. Nonetheless, there were people telling that they were addicted to visiting İstanköy every week since they had no other chance and venue in their daily life to satisfy for their sexual demands; but at least two hours to visit İstanköy and get relaxed.