Hammam Guide

The Hamam That Changes

by oldskool on Aug.10, 2010, under Beyoğlu hamams

Firuz Ağa Hamamı, Çukurcuma Cd. 6, Çukurcuma, Beyoğlu.  Men early AM and normal PM, Women midday.  About 35 TL.

A German friend was coming to the city and he asked me to take him to the best hamam in town. I knew it was an impossible question but yet I gave it a try.

I asked around, browsed the web, read some books and I really didn’t have any clear idea. Even though I had already been here for a couple of months I hadn’t had any hamam experience myself.

I knew I didn’t want one of those big hamams which were far out of my budget but also seemed an artificial experience.  With that juvenile eagerness of the traveler I was looking for the “real thing”.

When I finally met up with my friend I simply was going to tell him I was broke and we should better go for çay. He refused and we went to the hamam that is in the corner of my house. It was close and it was a Thursday afternoon and because of work and time that seemed as our best option.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about this place. Especially after reading the big Mehmet story I wasn’t all that keen to come here but I didn’t want to negatively predispose my friend so I didn’t tell him anything and simply accepted to go. For me it was also interesting; regardless of the result, I was going to experience my first hamam.

The entrance was small and the people working there very friendly. The tension began to build up. I was excited to wear the little peştamal and to be guided into the chambers of the hamam.

Architectonically I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful.  I wasn’t expecting more than one big room. It was all very pleasant to see all the little chambers, with different temperatures, different qualities of light.

There were about 4 other people in the place. We learned what to do by mimicking their behavior. We chose our marble basin and began pouring water on us. It was really nice. It wasn’t extremely hot so it was quite very enjoyable and my friend and I hadn’t seen each other in almost two years so it was a fantastic environment to catch up with all the life stories.

In an opposite corner two Turkish men were doing the same, just chatting. The heat made the conversation stop every now and then; just to catch your breath, to relax, to pour some more cold water.

I really love “sweat houses” curiously because in general I don’t like the heat much.  But I like them as transitional spaces.

In every society there are some characters who are allowed to break the social rules, to live in spaces in between. This is the case of the shamans. However for the average folk, who can’t live in between worlds there are spaces where rules can be broken.  Sweat houses tend to be one of them.

I could see this was one of those places by the tender way these very tough men were pouring water over one another, on how relaxed they were.

The heat got too much for me in one moment so I moved to a different chamber where I could cool down.

There was another guy. As soon as I entered the room he engaged in conversation with me. He spoke a little English, enough to have one of these pleasant slow conversations. With the same curiosity that I have encountered in many other Turkish, he asked me on my whereabouts and we spoke about hamams for a little while. Then he washed my back –rules can be broken– and pour water on me. I did the same for him.

Soon my friend was joining us along with another traveler who ended up in the same place. The new guy was from Iran and with anthropological curiosity I began talking to him and asking him about hamams in his country. He wasn’t eager to talk but seemed amused by the conversation going on.

And that’s how it continued; we just began talking to the newcomers when we were apart and talking about life when we were together. Everyone was talking among themselves, just cut slow phrases, shorter according to the temperature of the room. Everybody was simply friendly, trying to share stories or simply smiling on the way.

Then it was time for my soap massage. I was taken to the smaller coolest chamber. By the eyes that you develop through experiencing things over an over the masseur could tell I wasn’t much for heat. He was the older of the three men who work on this place. I can tell that he has spent his entire life among these walls where his physical defects didn’t matter at all, what mattered was his ability for his job.

I lay down in the cold gray marble and felt the foam fall all over me, falling slowly along with some air and the occasional touch of the tissue. Not so far I could hear one of the Turkish men singing a distant song with that sense of melody that reminds me of how far away I am from familiar places.  It was sensorial heaven.

It was my friend’s turn. He was taken in the main chamber, the hottest one with most intricate details: The little niches on the wall, the skylight glasses, the white shine of the marble table. I then had the voyeuristic pleasure of watching him being washed, taken care of in the abandon of a child. It was beautiful to see him so strong and yet in surrender.

This hamam experience was fantastic. It had everything I could dream of in my best hamam fantasies, the broken rules, the friendliness edging on flirting, the songs, the beauty. We simply didn’t want to leave but the time came and we left utterly pleased about this great evening.

We were so happy that we decided to come back, on Friday night after work just to repeat this adventure. Little did we know how easily the rules of transitional places change from one instant to the next, using codes that will long escape our foreigner eyes.

We went back, same beautiful place, same corner of my street; a completely different place. The people working there welcomed us in friendly manner and placed my friend and I in the same dressing room. None of us has a problem with nudity or close physical contact both of us being long time friends and naturists so this change probably wouldn’t even had made it to my mind map if it wasn’t for all the other changes.

Today, a Friday night, the ambience was denser. I not only mean that it was much hotter, much steamier. The moment we walked in there it felt already as a different experience. We went to the main chamber. The idea was to follow the same procedure as the previous night. Today, even though there was about the same amount of people as the last occasion, nobody was talking.

My friend and I were much more silent too.  It was partly the extreme heat, partly the fact that we had already shared many of the day’s stories earlier at dinner, but also we were following the rules of the place.

As I have already mentioned in different areas in this same post I don’t love heat. Soon I needed to go cool down in one of the smaller, fresher chambers.

Shortly after, somebody followed me to the room. I tried some conversation but didn’t get much answer. What I did get were several glances of the guy who had an increasing erection.

I went back to my friend who during the same time had had a similar experience. Today the hamam wasn’t a place to find friends but to find lovers. We stayed there a little but longer trying to figure out the new dynamics and codes. We learned that the masseur today wasn’t as good and much more likely to touch your genitals on the way. While the first night there was the older, more experienced, ugly guy tonight there were two young men, more inexperienced in massage but more handsome and more likely to caress other parts of your body. I found one of them, the middle one, an interesting case. The first night he was also there learning to give massages, changing stages. This night he was the main masseur, dressed in a completely different way, providing a different service and he was almost a different person.

My friend did get a massage, in the fresh dark chamber. Not because of heat considerations but because in this place, if he felt like it, other hand services could easily be required.

We understood that in this forbidden encounters silence was something essential. Today there were no songs or chats and we got odd looks by talking all the time, by disturbing the anonymity of the place. The last thing we learned today was that a peştemel hanging by the entrance door of one small chambers means “attention, men working” to put it lightly. We left the place quite aware that rules change much more than we had imagined when discussing our transitional hamam experiences. That we are more Thursday evening guys.

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1 comment for this entry:
  1. Traveler

    I arrived to the hammam at five, more or less. A bit nervous for what I have read about this place, I was not sure if coming to this particular bath was the right decision. However, as I walked down the stairs and asked for a small cabin to change my cloths, I realized that this hammam was clean and open, with light and a warm atmosphere of familiarity. I took off my cloths and walked into the steam rooms with only the hammam tower, still curious of the inside. At first, I was expecting an almost underground sauna, with no light, a lot of steam and suspicious figures walking around. But how wrong I was. For when I entered, I found an almost empty hall, with just a couple of men there. One of them kindly approached me and started conversation. He was surprised that I was not Turkish and yet was able to say a couple of words in his language, and that made him being even kinder and welcoming. I might say, but not that sure, that at some point he suggested a closer encounter, but always veiled with a warm smile and never going to forward as to be uncomfortable, aggressive or even obvious. After a few minutes, he left me alone and continued with his own ritual of cleaning. Coming to a hammam is always an extraordinary experience of a ritualized form of cleaning the body, with a particular phase, free from the worries of the world outside the marble walls of it.
    After a few minutes, two young men entered the main room. I could not say how old were they. I imagine them as nineteen or twenty, one very different from each other. Carelessly, they walked inside, and started to pour water over their bodies. Very young, their bodies were still gentle and charming for the gaze, and so the usually silent ritual of cleaning was transformed into a relaxed game between two friends. One of them was particularly energetic, singing while washing his arms and chest, walking around from time to time, resting on the long marble stone in the middle of the room, with no particular strains or contempt.
    The room was suddenly transformed by the life of these two guys. Is not that they were playing, nor seducing anyone, moreover, it was as if they could not notice any of the people who was already there. And yet, their movements and smiles, songs and voices, were inventing all us to a moment of relaxation and pleasure, not in coming all together, not in taking any particular action or even moving, but in enjoying the freedom of their own bodies and the subverted rules of this ambiguous space.
    The whole scene marvelled me. No judgements or stereotypes where prevailing in there. If the guys were gay or not, if they were friends or something else, it was unclear but also unnecessary to be defined. The space allowed them to entertain each other with conversation, melodies barely sung, with pouring water on their own bodies or to each other, helping the other to get rid of the foam in their backs by carefully and playfully delineating the body of the other with their young hands. Was it sexual? Was it gay? Was it a provocation? Not and yes. It is difficult to answer, and again, unnecessary. It was mostly the display of a freedom that is rarely to be seen. It was mostly the display of different understanding of friendship and love, of beauty and passion, that that we learn in movies and television, in religious education and the school. I was marvelled because they possessed a fresh beauty that neglected and rejected the limitations we impose to them by defining gender. They were there, playing, enjoying, being completely relaxed, as if sitting beside your friend and touching his arms and chest, throwing him water from time to time as to provoke him, smiling and then walking away, as if sitting in such a way, then, was just the most normal and natural form to express friendship and love.
    I left the hammam with no difficult encounters, with no insinuations or trouble. I left the hammam completely relaxed. I left the hammam with the exquisite impression of the beauty of youth, not in having a carnal contact or even desiring it, but in learning to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of two young bodies that play with each other in the most relaxed manner, leaving gender definitions, love definitions, definitions themselves, to another time.

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