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.