I go to Turkish baths more than most people here. That the owner of one of the city’s major hamams is a partner at my firm just encourages this habit. For example, Selcuk (my boss) and I went to his hamam just following our student’s final studio exhibition night. We thought we’d sit around with a bunch of other dudes in towels on a hot stone table, enjoy the steam, and hash out the semester. Then have a wizened but shockingly vigorous old Turkish man scrub, soap, and massage till just semi-consciousness. (Replace “dudes” with “babes” for the female side.) I’ve been a big hamam fan since my first in winter ’09, but going with Selcuk raised the bar. He’s not only business partners with the hamam’s owner, but he also understands “service” in a way I never will: a very Turkish way. Typically, the massage guys treat a European tourist somewhat like confused but valuable cattle that may offer tips. Hey Kobe beef-to-be, come here, sit, turn, sit up, slap on the back, ok you’re done. For Selcuk, the guys layed out two towels and pillows for us right on the stone table, pushing other customers away, brought water, knew him by name, how are you Mr. Selcuk?, etc. Once finished and sitting in his little cubby room, Selcuk had the normally surly attendant delicately serve tea and manually dry him with at least four fresh towels. Even the change in my own treatment, from wary recognition of a semi-regular customer to outright fawning in front of me, was startling. Who am I? In the American service industry, would a customer even want this sycophantic display, let alone be able to ask for it? But Selcuk is “a big man,” and “this is Turkey.” I mean, it’s hard to describe without oversimplifying through caricatures, but the whole scene and the attendant’s behavior was genuine. The tradition of overt subservience to a person of stature is still very much respected here.
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.