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.
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.
The Film Historian Bathes in Üsküdar
During my childhood my mother took me and my sisters almost every weekend to the hamam in my hometown. As I was very often one of few male children, women in the hamam were teasing me by saying: “Aren’t you old enough to visit the hamam when it’s open for men only?” And that was not the only thing that scared me. I was also afraid of the steamy heat in the hamam. I thought very often I would suffocate and die. That’s why I was very happy that I was the first of the children to be washed by my mother and brought to the waiting room where I sat down drinking my cold soft drink. When I grew older, I remained afraid of the steamy heat in the hamam and avoided going there. At the same time I was not at ease with the situation: How can a Turk avoid going to the hamam? At the moment I’m living abroad and last time I was in Istanbul and I was invited by some friends to go to the Tarihi Valide Atik Hamami in Üsküdar. I don’t know why, but I thought the time to get rid of this childish fear had come. So I decided to join my friends and went there. In the end it was a relaxing experience in the ‘deadly’ heat of the hamam!
In the film Four Rooms, four different directors take on one evening in a hotel. In this series of posts, four people take on the experience of one trip to the baths. Although the four bathed together, each has recounted their night from their own experience. Sound and the Fury meet the Atik Valide Hamamı.
Tarihi Atik Valide Hamami
Tabaklar Mah. Eski Toptassi Cad No. 98
0216 334 91 58
Men’s until 11pm
Women’s until 7pm (but will accommodate groups for later)
Hamam price: 13. 5 for Kese, 5 for Massage.
The Architectural Historian Bathes in Üsküdar
The four of us met at an interesting lecture on the hamam-patronage of the Sultan Mother Nurbanu (ca. 1525 – 1583): an archaeologist, an historian, a film historian and an architectural historian, in very different stages of hamam-experience. We decided to investigate one of the historical hamams that we had just learned about, the Atik Valide hamami in Üsküdar, part of a great complex of mosques, schools and pious foundations founded by this powerful lady in the heydays of the Ottoman Empire.
For me this was quite off the beaten track, having visited two hamams before, the beautiful yet touristy Cağaloğlu and Çemberlitaş hamams in the Old Town. From these visits I remembered being conducted from one room to the other by bathing assistants who did not speak any other language than Turkish, so I was not sure what to expect in this place which was supposedly hardly ever visited by foreigners. Could it be even more mysterious and confusing?
However, my slightly nervous anticipation was nothing compared to the anxiety of my hamamophobic Turkish friend. He had not visited a hamam since his childhood, when his mother would take him there all day, which he hated. A combination of uncomfortable heat and being uncomfortable with nascent homosexual feelings had prevented him from ever going again, until we took him to this place.
Upon approaching the supposed location of the hamam, a couple of modest domes indicated that we were on the right track. The patrons welcomed us and before we knew we were asked to sit down and take off our shoes. We were handed plastic slippers (way too small for this Dutch bigfoot) and conducted upstairs to the gallery over the entrance hall, where each of us was assigned a little cabin to undress. With their glass doors these offered little privacy, but who cares. In our loincloth (peştemel) we went to the domed steamroom where we reclined on the central stone platform (göbektaşı). In terms of temperature, we really got value for our money! The heating mechanism aroused my curiosity: would there really be a little man under the floor to stoke the fire as had been illustrated in the lecture? Our Turkish friend knew that the name of this ancient profession was still used as an insult in Turkey today. When I walked towards the tap to splash myself with cool water, it occurred to me that the most intense heat was actually emanating from the walls, which made me turn back to the göbektaşı rather quickly.
I was relieved when three of us were taken to the marble massage tables, where we simultaneously enjoyed a scrub+soaping+massage. The masseurs (keseciler) kept chatting with those of us who spoke Turkish, leaving me as the only non-Turcophonic wondering what kind of things one might discuss with one’s masseur. Would it be small talk like at the hairdresser’s, or were more profound eastern mysteries being unveiled in such an intimate tête-à-tête?
My orientalist reveries came abruptly to an end when I was led to a cold shower. Feeling like a snake having just shed off its old skin, I went back into the steam room. In one of its corners there was a door with a sign indicating a “Finnish Sauna”. Expecting a dry hot sauna, I went inside and found this room to be even more steamy and wet than the last one. It was also hotter. Shrouded in mist, my friend was sitting here together with the only other visitor besides us: a young blond Turkish man. He turned out to be a university student and told us that he went to the hamam only once or twice a year. Whether there was any specific reason for his current visit remained somewhat undefined.
Soon, the heat struck me again and after taking a cold shower I decided to get back to the atrium room. Here I was awaited by a bathing attendant who wrapped me in a towel and knotted another towel around my head turban-style. I was directed towards a beach chair where tea was being served against the backdrop of an enormous wall photo of a tropical beach. A sense of giddiness got hold of me as my friends and I looked at each other, richly betoweled and beturbaned in this strangely alienating locale. We agreed that this turned out to be a very relaxing experience.
Sultanahmet Hamamı (or Park Hamamı)
Divanyolu Cad. Doktor Emin Paşa Sok. No. 10
0212 513 7204
I have always seen this hamam ever since I was in Turkey. It is advertised fairly widely on internet sites and guidebooks, also going by the name of Park Hamamı. It is also ‘considered’ a bath where gay activity takes place. Having all of this in mind, Kirk and I set off after a fabulous dinner to find a totally different bath – the Gedikpaşa bath near the Covered Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı). We were surprised to find it totally gutted and in the process of renovations. So Sultanahmet Hamamı was our second choice. It was rather late – maybe ten at night.
Let’s be clear – this is a tourist bath. Upon entry, we negotiated the price of kese and masaj down to 30 YTL each. We were led into one changing room for the two of us, which I found interesting, but not at all unusual. Men and women, however, shared both the changing rooms and lounge room. We walked into an oblong space where there was a door for men’s and one for women’s. A very unusual arrangement! In the men’s bath, it was rather dim and a bit run down. There was the main hot stone in an L shaped room with the stone in the corner. Between both wings of the L was another room. It was actually fairly crowded with, surprisingly, several Turkish young men. I waited while Kirk got his kese started.
Then the keseci beckoned me – he was a typically huge man with a gigantic belly and, of course, from Tokat. In fact, if these posts haven’t been mentioning this factoid – almost all kesecis come from Tokat. I quickly warned him that my left arm was not to be touched as it was hurt. Although I was clear, he didn’t really care. He treated me like a piece of meat, giving me a cursory soap and massage. Each time I flipped, he didn’t rearrange my peştemal, but it just lay there in disarray. As I was in that limp-bather mode, I couldn’t even fix it properly. So I was just on display in complete disarray, hanging out, several times during the massage. I felt so dirty! Like I had been sexually used and just left there. And the arm. Oh the arm. He paid no attention to the fact that it was hurt and several times let it just flop down, banging, on the hard marble. Let’s just say that it was, without hesitation, the worst kese experience ever. The website mentions that all of their kesecis are “trined and professional” people. I almost should have gotten his name to do anyone reading this the service of NOT asking for him. Nevermind the keseci, the bath gets my worst vote. Ever.
Now, there were some good points to the experience. First, in the corner there was a really cool looking 4 foot tall wooden barrel. I kept staring at it and wondering what it was for, secretly wishing I had one of my very own. Later I learned in the brochure that it is for an “aroma therapy soak” showing some guy in there with a drink in one hand and a silhouette of a moose behind him. Second, were the Turkish young men. They were each getting kese-ed and soaped around the navel stone and I just sat to the side and watched them with fascination. The reason is that as the keseci massaged and stretched their limbs, they were moaning and groaning quite audibly. This stimulated the keseci to massage and stretch them more, and so the experience continued. But what was really interesting was that in almost all of the young men, the keseci was only massaging them. He was not doing anything contortionist or painful. It was a pseudo-sexual moment between these two men, as Kirk pointed out. So I did not see anything overtly gay or cruisy at this bath – but wondered if young men come here to get ‘worked’ over in what appears to be a normal experience but is made into a charged sexual fantasy.
As I exited, my keseci gave me my towel rather unceremoniously – not draping it around my shoulders and placing one on my head as is custom. Of course since I couldn’t use my left arm I couldn’t do this myself. At this point, I asked, irritably, for a little help. He huffed. After changing, Kirk and I had tea in the lounge watching giggly toweled foreign girls next to us. The manager came to talk to us and asked how it was. I held my tongue, as nothing good would have come from my mouth. Kirk said, well the kese was a bit short and could have been far better and was rather gruff. The manager smiled awkwardly and nodded, “evet, olabilir” – yes, it is possible.