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.
Aziziye Hamam. Kadıköy Haydarpasa Rıhtım Cd. Recaizade Sok. No:17-19 Kadıköy. Mens bath: 0216 349 14 65
Ladies bath: 0216 449 06 13 Cell: 0216 449 06 13 E-mail: email@example.com Hours: Seven days a week
Mens bath06:00 AM to 23:00 PM Ladies bath06:00 AM to 23:00 PM. Fees: bath: 15 YTL, kese and massage 15 YTL.
My mother wanted to go to a Turkish bath while she was visiting me, and while going to a hamam has been on my list of things to do since I arrived in Istanbul six months ago, I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Mom would have been happy to go to the “hamam” in her hotel, which offers “an authentic Turkish bath experience” in their state of the art spa, but I was dubious. I was also sort of dubious about Aziziye Hamam http://www.aziziyehamam.com/ – the website is in perfect English and it offers directions from Europe, two sure indicators that it’s geared to tourists- but the website promised beautiful Ottoman architecture, and showed pictures of old guys wrapped in towels, so I figured we were bound to have a more authentic experience than making an appointment at the concierge’s desk for a massage by the lap pool.
The building had an unassuming salmon facade, with separate entrances for men and women. We went in the ladies’ entrance and down some marble steps into the entrance room. A half naked woman stood before us, vigorously toweling herself. An old woman in a headscarf was laying on a bench to our left, gently snoring. The room was lined with two stories of wooden cubicles, the upper level reached by a tiny set of marble stairs. In the a cubicle on our right there was a woman, stark naked except for slippers, applying deoderant and picking her toes and other private activities. We stood there, uncertain what to do. We stood there, uncertain, and tried not to stare. The naked lady in front of us stopped drying herself and disappeared into a cubicle. I noticed a modern drink machine in the corner, incongruous against the marble and dark, old wood. After a few minutes the door at the opposite end opened and a middle aged woman wearing nothing but a pair of black panties and some rubber slippers emerged in a billow of steam. She ushered us up the tiny, twisted marble stairs into cubbies, (the wrapper from a sanitary napkin was laying on the bench in mine) made sure we each had a pestemal and slippers, and left us. Mom and I had a brief conference through the wall separating our cubbies about how much to leave on, and then we both emerged in our underwear, wrapped in our pestemals.
Downstairs two more plump, middle aged ladies wearing black panties and slippers ushered us through the door into the steam room. There was a large navel stone in the middle, and areas on either side with low stone shelves and stone basins with taps. The bath attendants put us in a corner, each with her own basin, and gave us plastic bowls and demonstrated that we were to pour water over ourselves. They disappeared, and we looked at each other, perplexed. Another woman came in and sat in the corner opposite ours. She unfastened her wrap and began dousing herself repeatedly with water, so we did the same. Aside from the weirdness of sitting there half naked with my mom, it was pleasant. The steam room was gorgeous. There was a dome over the navel stone with a window at the top that let in a little light that filtered down through the steam. The tile work on the ceiling and in the dome were exquisite. It was nice to sit there in steamy drowsiness on the beautiful, warm marble benches and pour water on myself when I got too hot.
There was an old woman on the other side who was taking an inordinate amount of time to shave her nethers. Across from her were a group of young woman laughing and chatting and soaping each others’ backs. I was surprised at their youth; I’ve been given to understand that young Turkish people don’t go to Hamams much anymore. For the better part of an hour we were the only foreigners there.
“Better than the hotel, huh, mama,” I murmered. “This is a real Turkish experience.”
She nodded, pleased.
After a while I started to get restless. I’ve never had the patience to sit in a sauna or take a long soak in a tub and I was beginning to get very thirsty. I was just beginning to fidget in earnest when the trio of middle aged ladies in their underpants came back, and with a series of grunts and gestures, got us to lay down on our pestemals on the navel stone. First my attendant scrubbed my back and legs with a rough cloth in long strokes. She slapped my thigh to indicate that I should flip over and then she did my front. Then she took me over to a stone basin and rinsed me, and rinsed the gray pills of dead skin from my pestemal, and pushed me and grunted at me until I was laying down on the navel stone again in the correct position. She soaped me up with a bit of bar soap and a washcloth, front and back, (I think she used the same cloth for me and my mother) Finally I was taken back to my basin and she rather lovingly shampooed my hair and left me to finish rinsing myself.
Full disclosure: I worked in spas in the US for years. And the whole time I was there the voices of every beauty school teacher and every boss I’ve ever had was screaming in my head about the sanitation, which, by OSHA standards was non-existant. I’ve never been a germophobe, but if you are, perhaps you should stick with the hotel spa. Everything was covered in soap and hot water, and the worst I believe you could catch in such a place would be ring-worm or a touch of athlete’s foot. Also, if you’re expecting some TLC in the massage forget it. The whole thing took ten minutes, tops, and was rather rough. Also, perhaps because I worked in a spa for so many years, I’ve lost some of my boundaries about nakedness and touching, but I feel I should warn you, ladies: your boobs will be manhandled. They will be scrubbed and soaped along with the rest of you, as will your inner thighs. The lady wearing only underwear and a grim expression will move your underwear wherever she needs to- pulling it below your butt cheeks one minute, yanking it into your crack the next.
Over all it was a nice experience. I left feeling softer and smoother than I have in a long time, and profoundly relaxed, and it was nice to do something that’s normally so private, bathe, in such a communal atmosphere.
Büyük Hamamı (Kasımpaşa/Beyoğlu, Potinciler Sok. 22)
The entrance to the women’s side of this hamam is around the corner from the men’s. It is smaller and almost resembles a service entrance (see the male side).
The communication barrier was absolute, but we (myself and two other lady friends) been armed with a few hints from our trusted guide, Asa. One important hint was not to let them rush you from the steam room to the bath slab for the kese.
We were tossed in a small room with vinyl benches and given wraps. Being small, the wrap more than covered me, others were not so lucky. I’m not sure they cared.
We were ushered into a marble room with a low shelf to sit on, each by a marble sink. Hot water was run and we were cautioned that it was very hot. We were able to turn on the cold water and each had buckets with which to douse ourselves. Water ran everywhere. We sat and sweat.
Ushered into another room and set on a very hot, very beautifully carved marble slab. Above was a dome with many small windows. The clouds and the sky were perfect. It was a place to reflect. It was a point to stare at if one were uncomfortable with looking at one’s friends naked. It was a point to look at to calm down.
Having no idea what to expect made me anxious. Two women walked in, wearing only underwear. The women were voluptuous, cellulite abounded, but strong, very strong looking. Their underpants were flesh colored briefs, not completely dowdy, though. No lace detail, but not baggy 100% cotton. The three of us shifted over so they could lay down next to us.
Each of them smacked separate edges of the slab and pointed at one of us. The third of our party was left to sit and watch us get washed.
The washer women did not try to talk to me and I think they might’ve been talking to each other. My fellow bathers and I spoke in the ante-steam-room and while we waited to be washed and then in-between washings, but during this part, the washings, we were all quiet.
I was told that this would be the best scrub ever, that it would be hard and my skin would feel softer and more invigorated than ever. Much to my chagrin, the scrubbing was light, the soap was the cheapest liquid, most obnoxious smelling Proctor & Gamble nastiness. I was reeling from being washed by a topless woman. And, yes, I was worried that I’d be taken advantage of. It was a very sexual thing for me. I was scared. When it was time for me to flip over, she just smacked my thigh. There was one moment when my clit was grazed and it just felt awkward. I wondered if they were going to wash my private parts, which, by the way, were left unrinsed.
It was done quickly and I was told to sit on another marble shelf. Cold water was doused over my head from my bucket. This made me lose my breath and it was very uncomfortable, not exhilarating. By that time I was in a panic.
We waited for the third to be done and walked back to our little room in our wet wraps. Towels were eventually brought to us.
We hit the streets shortly after drying off and paying. Had a chicken sandwich and some soda. The men in our party came sauntering out 45 minutes later, having been given hot towels, tea and television.
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:
Ali Paşa Hamamı
I went to the Ali Paşa Hamamı, otherwise known as the ‘Yeni Hamam’ by the locals in Çorum in late February 2009. This is a 16th century building renovated recently. It is in the heart of the old and present town center, right by the clock tower and other historical buildings.
I must admit that I did not pay much attention to the exterior of the building –the façade is sort of hidden between shops selling nuts along with hamam utensils like soaps and kese and the like. On the interior, the main room had a special feature, which I had not seen in other hamams before. Around the göbektaşı there were four niches on the sides and four rooms at the corners, each room with a different temperature on the inside. These rooms did not have doors but were semi-private, separated from the main room with brick (presumably) walls with marble coating. Above the threshold of each room was a sign indicating the temperature level in them, but with names of the four seasons; yaz, bahar and so on.
I visited the hamam with one of my best friends, who is from Corum –but lived in Ankara most of her teenage and adult life- and lives there now, and her mother. Her Mother Emel is a regular hamam goer, but my friend prefers more of the spa type new hotel complexes when she feels like a long relaxing bath. Emel, though, is almost a profi –she was a regular to the neighborhood hamam when she was a kid and she is obviously still very much at ease with the excess of steam inside.
This hamam experience was my sixth or seventh time, so I knew more or less what to expect, but as the admin points out, every hamam has its own peculiar little traditions. For me, this one in Corum will be memorable with its length. The whole waiting-kese-massage procedure took more than 3,5 hours! The kese lady seriously took her time and told me that the “Corum ladies can’t get enough of kese” and she added, “if we keep it too short, they ask for more”. I think my 15 min kese experience at Cemberlitas the previous year did quite the same effect.
And at this hamam, I noticed women tend to interact with strangers more easily and often: After all Corum is a small city and it is certain that so and so’s father-in-law or some other relative used to hang out at the same coffee shop as your brother’s uncle. But they also like telling you their life stories and ask you personal stories. Here it was the first time I heard women talk about their unmarried sons –what movies always tell us what hamams are all about; about finding appropriate brides for sons, nephews and the like.
Overall the hamam was extremely clean. It was cheap. We paid 10 TL each for the whole thing. It was a cold Sunday –the perfect day in my opinion to spend in a hamam.
Denizciler Caddesi, Acıçeşme Sokak 3, Ulus, Ankara
This sixteenth century building is located in the old part of Ankara, Ulus. It is located just off of Anafartalar Caddesi. There are few tourists in the hamam. It is fairly well attended most days of the week, but especially on Sundays. I have visited this hamam quite regularly (once a month when I was living in Ankara at least) during the last 25 years. In my childhood, we used to go to this hamam with my family (my grandmother and my mom) and sometimes with our neighbors, generally on Sundays (since my mom used to work). We would take some snacks with us and stay for at least 4-5 hours. We would not stay inside the hot room during all these hours though. Actually, the part I liked most was the waiting/changing room which actually is a covered courtyard as big as the hot room (closed dome) where there was (and still is) a large table and a stove. There were (and still are) always a few women sitting around the table, chatting and eating. This is really the main part where everyone hangs out. Whenever I go to this hamam, a few vendors who sold food (gözleme) and some home textiles (çarşafcı) would be there, also in this courtyard. There too, one could get your hair dyed. You can bring your own dye and then ask for one of the women working there to dye your hair for a few YTL. This courtyard was surrounded by rooms –there were around ten rooms on the ground floor and 5 rooms on the second floor. On the second floor, you could get your legs and other body parts waxed, either in the small rooms or in the area open to the public upstairs. This service was cheaper for those who used the hot room and paid for it; if you came only for waxing, then you had to pay a higher price (For instance, today full-leg waxing is 10 YTL for someone who has also paid to use the hot room (15 YTL), but for someone who doesn’t use the hot room, the price of full-leg waxing alone is 12 YTL. Kese and massaging is another 15 or 20 YTL). The price lists are posted on the walls. One changes in the side rooms but you don’t get a key. Instead you can deposit your valuables in a small corner “security room” with a woman attendant.
There are around 6 or 7 women working inside the hamam for kese and massaging. One thing that was striking to me was that there were always minor frictions among these women about the use of kese space and their customers. Usually, most customers of this hamam are regulars and they prefer (or are supposed to prefer) the same person for kese. There is kind of a deal among kesecis about not stealing each other’s customers. So you’re supposed to wait longer if your keseci has a lot of customers, even though some of the other kesecis are available. For instance, I haven’t changed my keseci for the last 25 years –she was also the one who scrubbed my mom and grandma. Some of these women are related by kinship (three sisters working as kesecis) and have been there most of their lives; at least for the last ten years I have seen only one or two new women in this place. Most women who work in the hamam I know (at least 3-4) are Kurdish origin. There are only three or four women for waxing, they are generally upstairs or around the table. They also have their regular customers. There are no appointments made for their services. A few years ago they hired someone new for waxing (actually it shouldn’t be called hiring, because I think the woman pays them and rents the space she works). She is the only one who does the new-style of sugar-free waxing.
Between the hot room and the main social room there is a warm room where kesecis compete to use the two big marble benches that can fit two people each. They don’t want to scrub on the navel stone inside the hot room because it is too hot in there. Inside the hot room, there is a navel stone surrounded by around 15 marble bath basins (kurna). Generally two women share one basin. Also there are two small alcove rooms in the corners with a few other basins. Ten years ago they converted another corner small room inside the hot room to a dry sauna. They lost some space in terms of the number of basins, but I guess the customers are happier that there is a sauna in the hamam. Normally, I enter and change. Then I either get my hair dyed or go upstairs for waxing. Then I go into the hot room and say hi to my keseci so that she puts me in her line. Then I sweat for 20 minutes until called. Then after kese and massage, I return to the hot room, bathe, and leave.
This is a very traditional and old hamam. It is visited by many people from different parts of Ankara and from different socio-economic classes. In this hamam, I came across women working as prostitutes, teachers, cops, basketball players, college students, but rarely tourists. Women tend to socialize more in the large social space rather than the hot room, although conversation can happen between women sharing the kurna basins or between kesecis and the women being scrubbed. Also there is some gossiping and even ‘nasty’ chit-chat between kesecis. Bathers rarely wash each other unless they are family or came together. Sometimes if I went alone my keseci would help me wash or wash me. My keseci, who is now almost 70, always tells me stories about the people I see around, or complain about other kesecis in competition with her. People generally go around in their underwear (mostly topless; except the scrubbers who have their tops on most of the time). There is a notice on one of the walls telling that full nudity is not allowed (something like “hamama çamaşırsız girmek yasaktır” – bathing naked is forbidden).
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.