The bath of many names, Şıfa hamamı is where one could find a good deal of male-male “action.” Usually reference to it involves many desperate foreigners unable to find it and being horribly lost. It is actually quite easy to locate. From the Karaköy metro head to the other Golden Horn bridge, that is when standing at the metro facing Sultanahmet take Tersane Caddesi to the right until you get to the other bridge. The bath is all by its lonesome in an uninteresting boxlike building on the right side. The Sokullu Mehmet Pasha mosque is on the left.
I went with a friend. Not just any friend. One that I met last summer a year ago at a club and went home with. He was French. We reconnected randomly and he suggested that we meet and go to the bath in the late afternoon on a Saturday. A lovely idea I thought! I had never gone to a bath date, let alone with a lover or “one-night stand.” I let him lead, as he goes there on a semi-regular basis, I gathered.
The building was quite unappealing, which is rather deceiving. Inside the changing room and reception were very clean and rooms arrayed around the court on two levels. We were given one changing room for the two of us, the closest near the concierge area. As we changed we stole sly looks at one another in the brief moment when we were…well…briefless. We wrapped ourselves and headed into the bath. Ahead was a door to a bath complex of at least two rooms that we didn’t go into. More on that later. Rather we hung a right, walked down a long hallway with some peştemal clad men and turned left into the main room. It was quite impressive. A real historic bath, clean, marbled with a central gobek taşı and alcoves in every corner that had entryways. I was impressed. This was no dank mildew peeling basement. Men were everywhere. On the gobek taşı, on the sides, in the alcoves. Everywhere. They were mainly hairy and some balding and some with big bellies and older, mainly 40s and up, working class by the looks of it, bus drivers, cab drivers. Most were alone, glancing at us as we walked in. No, scratch that. Staring. And staring hard. Only one or two were interacting with one another. We picked an alcove with the least amount of people in it; there were two. We sat together in a corner opposite them. Within minutes one had his peştemal open and was rubbing himself while staring at us. The other soon did the same. My friend and I were leaning against each other, shoulders touching, knees touching, feet touching. We were quietly chatting, occasionally pouring water over ourselves to cool down, ignoring the surroundings. It was sweet, relaxing, and I felt myself begin to let go, despite the staring strokers. We touched each other gingerly on the hands and shoulders, and then he kissed me. It was romantic and erotic…and I was freaking out. Just a little. Why? From my wanderings, I had constructed a highly sexualized top/bottom active/passive binary view of Turkish male – male sexuality. This affectionate display of intimacy had no part of it. Never once in a bath did I see men kiss. But this felt revolutionary. I loved my friend’s bold move in…well…just kissing me. I thought (my thoughts changed rapidly), well, all of these Turks who are constrained by showing public affection can feel comfortable watching this and perhaps feel bold or inspired to follow suit. Here in this bath we were safe. And they were all watching us. Of course, no one followed suit. To my dismay, not soon after we started, the keseci interrupted to inform us that he was ready to give us our massages. I felt like dad just walked in on us and quickly resumed composure and arranged my peştemal delicately.
The keseci was kind of hot. Perhaps the fittest one I’d ever seen. I thought this maybe a feature of more sexualized hamams where men know to go but then saw the other one, a rather large man with an unfortunate and massive tumor in his abdomen. I was reminded of Cihangir Sauna where there is a hunchback keseci. Is it that here in the seclusion of the hamams, these men with visible disfigurements can feel hidden from the public throughout the day? I was glad our keseci was the hot one. He gave us our massages and keses on the bench in the long interim hallway between two marble basins. I wanted to follow my friend out to watch his massage but the keseci and interestingly, other bathers, indicated that I shouldn’t. Maybe this was a private bond. My friend took my hand and I followed him. Another revolutionary move, I thought. I watched in relaxed disinterest as he scrubbed, soaped, and massaged my friend. It was kind of fun to watch, actually. After, during my turn, I enjoyed the scrub/rub. It was better than most. Not the longest, but he was really working hard as he massaged me and making heavy breathing and grunting noises reminiscent of tennis players at Wimbledon.
Afterwards, we returned to the bath and to another corner alcove. The stroking man from the first somehow materialized and poised himself across again, picking up where he left off. We left and wandered down the hall and let ourselves into the bath across the hall of the entrance. It was closed off, or at least I assumed this judging by the broom angled across the entrance and through the door handle. Inside was beautiful and empty. Feeling guilty we went back in the main bath. Now on the side of the main bath is a door that men were randomly going in and out of. I had observed this for the entire time and we went to check it out and it looked like two small semienclosed sauna type rooms with men in them and men waiting outside in the small narrow entry and so we didn’t linger. That is for next time. We returned to an alcove, and to our little corner. The bath was still full of men. Two men were talking with their arms around each other’s shoulders. They were younger but with chest hair and facial hair and muscular bodies. They stood out. At this point when we returned to the alcove I realized that my friend and I were smooth or nearly smooth chested with no facial hair and easily the most attractive. We were the main attraction. We settled into our corner, and began kissing again, moving further, exploring under peştemals. The stroker had appeared yet again, sitting across, and going at it fully now, his extended foot rubbed against mine purposely. My friend and I were a live show for the bath, despite our attempts at discretion and privacy. I so wanted to stay and enjoy the moment to completion but this nagged at me a little too much. I whispered in his ear that we should go back to his place, and so as we were both hot and heavy, the air charged, the stroker stroking, we got up and left. Upon leaving I peeked into the closed off bath again, hoping we can resume there, and to my surprise there were two figures: a man and a woman who was topless and laying down a pestemal for the man. Embarassed, I hurried out. A hired masseuse? Prostitute? I never did find out.
My friend and I changed and headed back to his house, caught a movie, he cooked me dinner, and I spent the night. And so the bath was but a prelude, an erotic and intimate one at that.
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.
Büyük Hamam (Kasımpaşa/Beyoğlu, Potinciler Sok. 22)
I visited the Büyük Hamamı male baths with four friends in May 2009. For two of us, including myself, it was our first trip to a hamam. This was something that I’d been looking forward to since we’d finalized our trip to visit our friend in Istanbul and overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing experience. The Büyük Hamamı was at the foot of a steep hill and I have to confess that I was expecting it to be a bit of a dump based on its drab exterior. However, the internal space was clean and pleasant, if a little tired.
We were welcomed by the manager, provided with a peştemel, flip-flops in exchange for shoes, and keys to individual changing rooms on an upper level that overlooked the communal waiting area. The changing rooms were basic, but clean. This might be stating the obvious, but the bath was hot and steamy and we initially spent some time trying to acclimatize to the heat while we sat and laid on the insanely hot stone or göbek taşı. It was a midweek afternoon and the baths were quiet with only a few other patrons, all who appeared to be Turkish. The massage was conducted on the göbek taşı by the tellak and took about 10-15 minutes. I’ve not had a huge number of massages before, but it was firm and even included some back cracking. This was then followed by the kese or scrub which was pleasant, but something of a surreal experience given that the last time I was washed and scrubbed by somebody else in this manner was as a child by my mother. It was shocking to see the amount of dead skin removed during the scrub and it made me doubt whether I clean myself sufficiently well on a daily basis. The soap was rinsed off thoroughly by the tellak with gallons and gallons of water. It was another unusual experience and one need to learn quickly to take a large breath of air between buckets…
Following the wash and massage we returned to the communal waiting area where we were bundled up in towels and directed to sit on a couch in front of an inordinately large TV. We cooled down with çay and soda before returning to the changing rooms for a short nap. I left Buyuk Hamamı feeling refreshed, very clean and with every intention of visiting another hamam as soon as possible.
In the tradition of communal bathing, here are several experiences from Bursa’s fine and venerable Eski Kaplıca.
From the male side, accounts from four bathers, all non-Turks, some experienced bathers, some new bathers, some return customers to the bath itself…
In Bursa we visited a very old bath, it was early in the morning, yet it was nicely populated by the time we entered. This was a huge building, impressive from the outside, and upon entry the building had domed ceiling entirely. This time we only opted for the bath experience – no keseci, etc. we were shown to a changing room, we changed, and with wooden shoes walked into the bath. We entered the first room – it was large, but barren, there were some benches on the side, but not much else. If one was to walk to the adjoined room on the right, there was a place for bathing (seating, basins) but I did not enter, so I could not write much more to that room. Walking forward, there was a door we passed through into the room that had a large pool and further basins. The room was nicely heated.
It was spacious and featured a beautiful octagonal pool in the hot room where one could swim. The pool was fed continuously by a stream of water cascading and creating a wonderful sound.
This was my first hamam experience, and what a better place to do it than Bursa’s finest. My reluctance to bathe naked with other men, was soon turned into an absolute enjoyment, partly because we were covered with thin towels, which minimizes the impact of the ‘first sin’ (you Jewish and Christians out there, know what I mean) and partly because the whole atmosphere made you relaxed. It felt so natural, as if men (and women) were meant to enjoy bathing not in the solidarity of their homes but rather in the company of others. Will I do it again? Most definitely I will! PS: Good company might be the key for a good first experience.
The mood of this bath was very nonchalant; in the past I had been able to keep account of time (for example, how long I spent in the complex, etc) but in this one I have no idea if I spend 30 minutes of 2 hours. The water was a very nice temperature; the room was very light and had a nice presence. There were about 7 men inside, all keeping mostly to themselves, however they seemed to know one another and at times would wash each other or have small conversations.
One man asked me if I could kese his back for him, which I did. He bade me to do it harder than I was. I’m not sure if I was the perfect keseci stand in. Certainly I was excused for not being Turkish. Which, I think, may have trumped any underlying eroticism intended. He also then did me.
We eventually left, passing back into the first, plain, room and changed into dry wraps. It was nice not to be handed the clothes, they were on a rack and there was a partition to change behind – the “nice” part of this was that it was entirely up to the bather when he wanted to leave the baths, there was no one handing you the towels and dry clothes signaling when you should leave, or you didn’t have to walk outside and ask for them.
The changing/lounging room was a vast domed bricked cavernous and beautiful space with beach lounge chairs and a bar and little cabana like dressing rooms.
We stopped by the “bar” – I had an ayran, which was very refreshing after the bath (it may be my favorite drink, after a bath or not) and relaxed a bit on the stools. Many men, most of whom we saw in the bath, were reclining on chairs in this area. Eventually, we made our way back to our shared changing room and relaxed a bit in there before leaving; I could have almost fallen asleep.
I had been to the Bursa Kaplica before by myself, and found the employees to be hostile bordering on the sadistic. But this time around, surrounded by a cohort of 10 friends, I loved it.
We left, returned our key, and were given lemon cologne for our hands (a smell I definitely recognized from having been in Turkey, yet not one that I had been given yet.) I feel that I could have spent many more hours in the bath, maybe all day with intermittent food, drink, cigarettes, etc.
I think this bath, in the Cekirge district, might be my favorite in Turkey currently. It was beautiful and clean, without being kitschy or swarming with Istanbul tourist groups.
And now for something completely different, from the women’s side (written by a Turkish woman)…
The women’s side in the bath was very small. I had a kese and massage. It was very similar to the ones I had in Ulus in style. There were only two spots for women to get kese or massage. Also unlike the hamam in Ulus, this one had a small pool. It was nice, but I really prefer a larger bathing area than a pool. Also there was no gobek tasi. The other thing that I found different was that we had to pay (including for kese and massage) beforehand. Also the entrance area was looked like an entrance for a gym rather than for a hamam. There was no place to hang out. The staff was not very helpful or talkative either. In general it was more professional, touristic and less friendly than my hamam in Ulus. Also it was not very impressive in terms of architecture, no dome or anything like that. But as I said the women’s part was very very small… it seemed like an appendix to the building was converted into women’s bath…
For a little history check out:
It was a raining day, and after my friend and I walked back to Galatasaray
hamam to take photographs of the interior and exterior, and we had
planned to take a trip to another hamam on the same road as
Galatasaray – being that it was raining, and seeing the sign
for Ağa Hamamı as we walked to our destination we decided to
walk in and check it out. The entrance was not street-level;
we had to walk down a few marble steps to get to the lobby. It
was very dim; even after the lights were raised for our
arrival (there no one else there at the time) it still stayed
quite dim. Discussing, and then settling on a price, the two
of us opted to receive the base-hamam experience, as well as
massage and scrub. We changed, and entered the hamam. The
dimness there was not an issue – it was much nicer than the
florescent colored lights of Galatasaray. As we lay upon
the stone I was surprised that it was not as hot as expected.
There was either condensation gathering and falling from the
dome, or there was water leaking in from the roof, dripping on
the two of us. The stone was also not nearly hot enough –
throughout the entire experience, until after my massage and
scrub and sitting in a side room (including a request for a 15
minute delay for our services to begin) I did not break a
sweat! Regardless, the experience was relaxing, and the keseci
was decent enough. The keseci did, though, react in a
particularly odd way concerning my body – for example, as he
scrubbed my arm (and this happened for both) he was, from how
it appeared, purposefully placing and rubbing my hands
particularly on his body- it was not offensive, but quite
Another odd note – during the visit a small group of women
came into the hamam, at first using one of the side rooms,
but then laying on the central stone. I felt no objection
other than shock – this happened after the two of our massages
and as we were sitting in the side rooms – even a regular to
this particular hamam was in shock!
Overall, this was an “ok” experience – apparently, this hamam
is open twenty-four hours, which sounds great, say, after a
long night out. The prices were much more reasonable,
especially for the neighborhood (located just off Istiklal)
and my only chief complaint was the heat of the central stone!
To have been waiting to break a sweat was taxing on my relaxation!
Çinili Hamamı. Murat Reis Mahallesi, Çavuşere Caddesi No. 204, Üsküdar. Men’s section: 0216 553 15 93; Women’s section: 0216 334 97 10, hours available most days, all day, but call ahead. Women’s section prices: 18 for hamam, 5 for kese, 5 for soap and massage, 3 for peştemel.
The Çinili Hamamı was built in 1640 as part of a mosque complex ordered by the Valide Sultan Mahpeyker Kösem, wife of Ahmet I (r. 1604-1617) and mother of Ibrahim I. Kösem Sultan was one of the most powerful women of the Ottoman 17th century and gained unprecedented influence in political decision-making when acting as regent, which she did three times, for her son Murad IV, and her grandson Mehmed IV. She made enemies as well as allies and was murdered in 1651 at the age of around 70.
Her complex has been divided by modern roads; the baths stand at the junction of Çavuşere Caddesi and Çinili Hamam Sokağı. The hamam’s unofficial website lists the neighborhood as Murat Reis but taxi drivers may better understand Bağlarbaşı. It’s a 5 minute 5 lira drive from the Üsküdar Iskelesi.
This is a double bath, with separate sections for men and women. Each has two central domed areas, one for the central room and the other acting as a large vestibule for relaxing. The name Çinili (tiled) apparently comes from the quantitities of Iznik tile that decorate both the mosque and the men’s bath, though I have seen neither.
I spent a Sunday afternoon in January at the women’s bath. Here, the vestibule has been extensively remade to include small changing rooms on two levels. These have their own charm, but any sense of a gracious space under the dome has been lost along with any original tile – an effect not greatly helped by a quanitity of new, bathroom looking tile, cheap plastic patio furniture, and a space heater. The last is an unfair complaint on a cold day; like most 17th century buildings, this isn’t equipped with central heating. And all the chairs were occupied: the hamam was really crowded.
The bathing section was less steamy than in past visits when the göbek taşı (the ‘belly stone’ under the big dome) was sometimes almost too hot to touch. Around the main domed room are a series of small alcoves alternating with small chambers. These house the faucets and basins which bathers themselves control. These are elegant marble, possibly 17th century, and the rooms are high ceilinged with niches for one’s peştemels (special hamam towels) and other bathing equipment. One of these small chambers is now a sauna; it’s bare-bones but hot and the wood is fragrant. The hamam is very clean and provides plastic flipflops; on this Sunday, though, the employees had to work to tidy discarded soap slivers, gazoz bottles, and the odd sponge.
The other bathers were mostly Turkish women and mostly seemed to be from the surrounds, though not necessarily the immediate neighborhood – several had come from Bostancı (further up the Asian coast of the Marmara). The mix was well-distributed between old and young – all other distinctions of dress, hair-style, make-up (and certainly headscarf) are lost. One sees the occasional tourist here but not often. Discussions between strangers revolved around other hamams, often new ones on the Asian side of Istanbul.
There was a striking difference between this and the hamams I’ve visited in other parts of the world: on this afternoon, no small children were present. This could indicate a variety of factors: the hamam as a space of adult sociability or work – children were not included in either; that most people come to the hamam for something other than necessity, as they have hot running water at home and children can be washed there; small children are offered an option to stay home or go elsewhere which requires someone else to look after them.
There was a usual array of bathing attire. Some younger women wore two-piece bathing suits; older women wore panties and sometimes bras, some wore peştemels around their waists. There is a kese (scrub) and soap & massage service, which is administered by one of several employees. The scrub is good though my keseci was unhappy that I’d applied moisturizer at some point a few days before which prevented the kese from adequately stripping the dead skin away. “Kremi kullanma!” The soap & massage is less recommendable, being really only a soap. This all takes place on the central stone, from which one can be dripped upon, pleasantly, with water condensing on the dome above.
The habits of the bathers range from social to serious; some are there to take care of their nails and hair as well as their skin. Clipping and filing is a public activity, but shaving goes on as quietly as possible, usually in a corner. Having a complete wash, which means nudity, also was done discretely, and a clean peştemel or bathrobe donned afterward.
The hamam strikes a good balance of the elegant, utilitarian, and local. On a winter’s day, it was crowded but still friendly and provides a place to escape domestic routines and the cold. It may not satisfy those who demand absolute luxury but it provides a comfortable experience nonetheless, without any of the hurry and pressure for tips of a more tourist-oriented hamam.
Ağa Hamamı. Turnacıbaşı Sok. No. 60, Beyoğlu. Hours: 24 (although presently in Dec 2012 it closes at 10pm). Prices: Hamam 20 YTL, 5 for Kese, 5 for Massage.
Visited Dec. 28th, 2008, Sunday, 3:30 pm.
On a particularly cold Sunday, my friend and I ventured to find another hamam to spend some time in. We wanted something cheaper but still close by. After waling by Galatasaray Hamamı to take some pictures, we continued left down the same street and came across Ağa Hamamı, not even 2 blocks away. I found it strange that two hamams would be so close to one another. Both are equally old, in fact the Ağa was from 1454, 27 years older than Galatasaray. We descended into the substreet level atrium area which was cold and dark (the light was turned on for the photo). The central fountain was not flowing but filled with colored stones. The room was so cold in fact that the attendant wore a heavy pea coat as he showed us to our rooms to change. The atrium was not ugly. I gathered it was kept this way in efforts to conserve heat and heating bills.
The heated portion of the bath was quite small. A main room with a central marble stone and 2 alcove rooms off of it. It was not terribly hot either. My friend and I laid down on the slab, only slowly feeling the sweat start to bead on our bodies. It felt nice and relaxing, and the no-frills space was fine. Granted, it was not sparkling; there were some dark water stains on the walls, however, the (rather old) hamam was clean and simple. We were the only ones inside.
After 15 minutes, the keseci, a tall thin older man in his 50s, asked if we were ready and I asked for 5 more minutes. He was not pushy which I found refreshing from other baths that assume foreigners know nothing about the procedures of bathing. After a while, he returned and attended to me first. He led me to the side near a washbasin and began to kese my skin and soap me up with a bar, rather than the long soap ‘bag. I thought it strange the he didn’t do it on the marble slab and I was sitting. He spent a long time on my arms and hands. He had one arm outstretched, my fingers reaching evenly between his legs. As he kese-ed my arms and soaped them he manipulated the slight opening and closing of my fingers, which I soon realized in my relaxed sweaty torpor, were stroking strategically against the bulge of his pestemel. At first I thought to pull my hand away but then realized that this was so innocent, so opportunistic, and harmless (and thankfully brief) that I didn’t move my arm. After doing my other arm (the same way), he then moved me to the marble slab and massaged me. At some point, he partially climbed up on the slab to get a better vantage on my back. The now larger and uncovered bits from under his pestemel grazed along my arm. I was cautiously amused at this game of subtle yet intentional self-eroticism. Through all of this there was very little talking. He also made no attempt to ‘accidentally’ grope me. I wondered if my friend realized what was happening? I looked over and he was lying peacefully on the slab, his eyes closed. At the end of the massage and kese I also felt quite relaxed and blissful.
It was my friend’s turn next and the keseci made me go into the side alcove area which I found interesting as he hadn’t really directed me around the bath until then. I then wondered if our kese at the side of the bath and away from my friend’s gaze, was intentional. I of course was insatiably curious whether my friend would get similar treatment. I leaned against the wall, occasionally pouring water from a basin onto myself and angled to see what was happening. Whether he was doing the same things to him or not was difficult to discern from a distance. Then, after his kese, my friend was relocated to a part of the marble slab that was blocked from my view, rather ‘coincidentally.’ At that point a middle aged late 40s-sh Turkish man entered and joined me in my little alcove. We made small chatter. His voice was basso and gravelly, like Harvey Fierstein. Then 2 women walked in, both tall with long black hair and looked like twins. I could not tell if they were Turkish or not but thought they were. Their pestemels were higher around their chests. They went into the second alcove, setting up a pestemel like a curtain at the threshold. I was a bit astonished. I also felt a bit self-aware of my body. Not that I cared for them to see me in any stage of nudity, but that I felt in Turkey in a bath it was not proper. Something just felt wrong or aberrant, perhaps as this represented a jarring shift out of a previously male space. I mentioned the women to the older Turkish man who hadn’t seen them and he didn’t believe me. He told me rather factually that women and men don’t bathe together in Turkey. Then the women came out and laid on the slab together. His eyes widened. He said that he is a regular of this bath and has never seen women and men bathing together. I found it interesting that his reaction was neither shock nor indignation not did he make an attempt to cover up. Rather he seemed amused, as if to say, “Well if they don’t mind, I don’t mind.” After my friend rejoined us we continued chatting a bit then decided to leave.
We shed our pestemels and changed into clean ones in a side shower/bathroom area between the atrium and hot room. This part of the bath was dingy. We didn’t idle in the atrium (something odd about relaxing naked in towels while the attendant and owner are in winter coats) but quickly changed and left. We were closely followed by the older Turkish man. I wondered if in the end he was uncomfortable being in there along with the women.
The Ağa Hamamı is an old bare bones no frills bath. Cheap and clean enough, I’m sure it has seen some action at some point, being close to Taksim and its madness, and apparently mixed gender. Did I mention that the bath is open 24 hours?