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.