The Archaeologist Bathes in Üsküdar
The Atik Valide Hamamı is related to Çemberlitaş, its larger fatter cousin in the heart of Ottoman Istanbul – Sultanahmet. But unlike Çemberlitaş, with its many tour groups passing through giving of their sweat and dead skin, and kesecis cursorily lathering up and washing down bodies as if on a conveyor belt, Atik Valide Hamamı is completely different – a quieter more intimate world. It lies in Üsküdar on the Asian side, a more residential, more conservative, and decidedly less touristic part of the city. With me was a perfect quartet of friends who you have no doubt read their accounts: the first time to a hamam Dutch man, the first time to a non-touristy hamam Dutch man, and the Turkish born Dutch immigrant who had hamam childhood trauma. We went in the evening, at about 8:30/9:00 pm.
The entrance to the bath was off the main street in an alleyway. The reception room was tasteful and modest but beautiful. The bath had clearly been redone. We were given rooms on the second level balcony and proceeded into the bath itself. There were 3 or 4 of the usual burly attendants who were all congenial and inviting. The hamam bath itself, however, we had to ourselves. It was a simple affair, with a wide gobektaşı and four corner alcoves. One had been outfitted into a “Finnish Sauna”. The walls had been redone in a mosaic pattern of red squared scattered on a white background. The only issue I had was that it was rather well lit inside, too much in fact. I felt as if in a house party when someone keeps the lights on. Dim lighting I felt is more appropriate to the intimacy of a hamam. In a matter of minutes I was sweating nicely and relaxing on the stone. It was nice being there with friends, as we were creating a social atmosphere out of the space.
The kesecis walked in and three of us elected to get washed. Our Turkish friend declined. The kese and massage was done in the intermediary warm room. As we walked out a very cute blond boy came in alone to bathe, which I thought odd and interesting. To one end there were three marble ‘beds’ with hot water bottles as pillows. We were done all at the same time; the kesecis all working together side to side, back to back, chatting with each other and singing. It was quite different than the usual one-on-one keseci-bather intimacy that is often formed but sweet nonetheless. My keseci gave a good massage and seemed to locate the one spot on my quad that had been sore for 4 days (from dancing atop tables at a beach nightclub on the Italian Riviera the weekend before). He instinctively pressed down on it and looked me in the eye grinning. I arced in pain but felt good soon after.
I wanted to return to the bath and see the boy. He was in the Finnish sauna and I went in and we started chatting. One of my Dutch friends, the hamam experienced one, also came in, slightly shattering the moment. But I continued asking the blonde boy (who was Turkish) some questions. He was 26, spoke a bit of English, understood much more, and had an MA in Journalism. He said he came to the bath once a month, then amended it to 3-4 times a year. But always the same bath, never another. Was he looking for men, I wondered? That such a young Turkish guy would come in alone as a ritual seemed to me unusual. But then this may be my foreign mind looking into the situation from one perspective. In a way I wanted to believe that young Turks didn’t bathe (publicly), if they did they went as a group, or if they went alone, they were looking for sex. I wasn’t sure in this case. We left the Finnish sauna into the main bath and he reclined across from me on the gobektaşı, while I was sitting near a basin. My Dutch friend followed. What were signals one could give? I realized inadvertently that my peştemel was not doing a good job of covering myself up. I tucked it between my legs and closed my knees slightly – as if I were a woman in a skirt suddenly forgetful of what I was wearing, how I was sitting. Then I moved my legs further apart and shifted it to see if there might be any recognition. I recalled the Ağa hamamı experience and the old man who rolled up his peştemel in almost the exact same position. Well, now I was in the role of old man, though I was not nearly as overt and flirted back and forth with demureness and temerity. The whole time we were chatting idly about what I did, what he did, etc. My Dutch friend left, I think sensing to give us a moment. In that moment of absolute aloneness in the hamam with this boy, nothing shifted or changed in the air. He did not engage me in eye contact more intensely, play with his peştemel, or lean in to my space. But he did ask me one thing – for my email address to give to him so that we may hang out. It seemed rather friendly, not suggestive. He even said we could meet with some friends. He got up to go out and I followed and we showered, I dried off to meet my waiting friends, and he reentered the bath. I felt a tinge of regret at the non-event that just occurred. Was this encounter friendly, was it something more, should I have done more to initiate it? But then I realized that he asked me to meet him later, asked me for my email. While seemingly innocuous this is part of some interaction. Men could meet in baths, that are not clearly gay spaces, with the idea of meeting later. That is; if there was something between us that evening, it didn’t have to happen in the bath. The bath was a place to make a date.
I met with my friends and we relaxed in nice canvas beach chairs in the main reception room. Behind us was a large blown up photo of a tropical beach with palm trees taking up the entire wall. On the television hanging from the ceiling there was a Turkish TV show. The kesecis were watching it. Strangely it was of men in a hamam socializing. Rather than wearing peştemels they wore white towels. And they were all incredibly built and good looking. How appropriate to have 24 Hour Hamam TV in the hamam. Then one guy stabbed another, a massive fight broke out à la martial arts films. I had to laugh at the hamam turned bloody on one side of me and the hamam turned Carribean dream on the other. We soon changed after having spent a wonderful evening. Just before we left, I scribbled my email address on a slip of paper and told the keseci to hand it to the blond boy in the hamam.
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.
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.