Kilis Tarihi Hoca Hamamı
Mahmet Pasa Sokak (Behind the Paris Hotel), Kilis. 348 8138618. Males 7-11 am and 5-11 pm. Females 11am-5pm. Not expensive, but you’re in Kilis anway, so just go. Designed and built by Canbolat Bey in 1545.
You might cry Stockholm syndrom, but as I lay on the warm stone, waiting for the medieval exfoliation experience, the keseci’s focus impressed me. He only stopped twice, once to grunt at the 15-year-old boy doing a pull-up on the sauna door lintel, much to the dismay of the cheering onlookers, and again when the kids stole his soap. We needed that soap. The keseci needed it to swirl around the plastic tub with hot water, into which he would dip a cloth bag, blow into the bag, and wring an unimaginable amount of soap suds over my prone body. I needed it because I’d spent the last few days on a fantastic jaunt around south-central Turkey, and I’d haggled with just enough hoteliers and fruit sellers to seek out a good scrub-down in a strange town. Jeff, Steph, and I found ourselves in Kilis. If you ever do the same, go to the Kilis Tarihi Hoca Hamamı.
One road to the Kilis Tarihi Hoca Hamamı starts at the Paris Hotel. Like my two friends and I, you find the hotel by asking the first manav “en yakın ucuz otel nerede?” He and three customers give you six sets of directions, all of which amount to staying on Kilis’s main road until you find the Paris, right across from the large indoor cay bahcesi. The hamam is directly behind the hotel. Not knowing this, you might go up to the second-floor reception desk and ask for the “en yakın” haman. After lighting another cigarette, the owner will lead you through the tea room to the hotel’s rear. Through the slightly greasy window, the hamam beckons. That is, you’ll overlook the hamam’s roof, an enticing collection of variously-sized clay domes with light-holes punctured in them and steam rising promisingly into the cold air.
Some context. Kilis is a small town south of Gaziantep and fifteen minutes north of Turkey’s Syrian border. If you’re like my traveling companions and I, you were driving from Antakya to Sanliurfa, wanted to bypass Gaziantep, and thought you’d stay in this Kilis place and see the border crossing. There’s even a Lonely Planet entry, which is highly overrated and probably means the author got stranded there and had a look around. Kilis turns out to be a very representative southeastern town. A main street, a few mosques, an ugly TOKI project on the outskirts, and more fresh baklava than the population could eat in a year. Also, if your female fellow traveler decides to go walking alone at night, against your express advice, she will find Kilis is a very conservative chauvenist town, and men will follow and heckle her. If she is bold, she may attack them and they may flee. (They did, but better to not find out the hard way.) Overall, Kilis is very welcoming. The streets are full of friendly shopkeepers and shopping grannies. As its winters happen to be cold, hamam is a popular choice.
My friend Jeff and I go at 830 pm. We will not be alone. First, we walk into the familiar foyer, take our shoes off, and say hello to the attendent, a.k.a. keseci. I notice he’s unlike most kesecis at Istanbul hamams. That is, he’s around 37 years of age, very trim and fit, and with almost no hair on this body. I wonder if he’s even Turkish. More like Russian spy, perhaps. But he understands we want the full service, and the tea-man/janitor leads and drags us over to one of the changing rooms. These rooms are also different than those in Istanbul. They are walk-in closet sized, have no door, and feature benches around their periphery with guests’ belongings hanging on hooks and stashed underneath. If the private, lockable chambers of an Istanbul turistik hamami are like private VIP skyboxes, these changing rooms are more like the mid-level seats just below. Anyway, the tea-man has a proud, firm way about him that says, “If you’re too dumb to know what to do, I’ll show you.” Channeling my Depression-era Granddad. Jeff and I wrap the peştemal (towel) around our waists, somewhat forlornly leave our bags and clothes under the benches, and follow the first guy, the keseci, into the hamam proper.
There’s usually a bit of consternation when yabancis walk into a hamam. Typically, an older keseci will assume you’re one evolutionary step up from donkey and drag and slap you into place. This guy is younger, soliticitous, and my Turkish was adequate enough to indicate we wanted kese and masaj after 20 minutes of hamam. He’s actually one of the best kesecis I’ve ever had. At one point, my friend Jeff becomes extremely light-headed from dropping blood pressure. The hamam is busy then, and we are obviously next in line for the kese-masaj. Instead, the keseci helps us back into the lobby, sits Jeff down by the fountain, and offers him water and an extra tower for warmth. The tea-man offers us all cigarettes. A sweet, all-male moment. But I digress.
We situate ourselves by faucets in the main room and begin the water scooping. The bowls are plenty and water hot. The Kilis hamam has a calm, central plan sauna on one side and differently heated rooms in the corners. It was peaceful and like the better hamams I’ve been to.
Two types of guests eventually come in. First, fifteen Turkish middle-school boys ramble in screeching and laughing and whipping each other with their towels. They take over a whole alcove of faucets and at least half of the central table. They massage each other with their own keses and soap, slapping each other’s backs. Think locker-room glee, without (too much) sadism, and totally great to see. The hamam transforms into a lively social space, like a Playstation-equipped basement or playing football a surburban yard back home. Except everyone’s in towels and washing themselves.
Of course these kids are inescapable. We start talking to them in the sauna, which is plenty warm. They come twice a week and definitely own the space. But I notice a care and attention for us, their guests. If one’s “George Boosh” questions go to far, two others laugh and tell him to stop. They ensure we’re having a good time, that we like Turkey. The ones who know English shyly explore our tolerance with it. Voices careen around the steamy, concrete-walled sauna with everyone’s sweat dripping on the cedar benches.
The hree others are Turkish working men. I know, because I say hello to one the next day in his gold shop. Like the boys, hamam is a normal activity for them. They chat with Jeff and I, but clearly both we and them prefer to enjoy our hamam without too much extra effort.
The keseci comes in with bowl, lanolin soap (no cheap motel-issue soap here), and soap bag. I can’t but notice he has no body hair, and is definitely more Anglo than everyone else in Kilis. If he’s a Russian spy, then they make a damn good keseci a the Kremlin keseci school. I sit on the edge of the heated platform. For each part of my body, he gives no more then three uncompromising, vigorous strokes. Instead of the heavy pawing of a large old Turkish keseci, this guy is athletic, moving his body around mine and digging into specific points. Then he does the full soap bag treatment , covered me in suds, very satisfactory, as mentioned above. Then flippin judo. Face down, he kneels on my legs and pulls my arms behind my back, arching me up a good foot from the platform. My legs get bent in several ways, back cracked more than once, and he doesn’t skimp on cracking my toes either. Some healthy, firm slaps all throughout.
Meanwhile, the boys are still bouncing around. They don’t care. The older men watch impassively , I think secretly enjoying the schoolyard spectacle.
The Kilis Tarihi Hoca Hamamı is an excellent hamam. There are no frills, but it performs its duties proudly and competently. In addition, it will put you closer to a real hamam lifestyle than most in Istanbul. I strongly recommend going, especially around 830 pm when the fun begins.