Exploring the Turkish bath
Jean Auguste Dominique 1862
Ingres The Turkish Bath
One cannot discover the true experience of Turkey without an obligatory visit to a hamam, or Turkish bathhouse. Adopted and subsequently perfected by the Selcuk Turks, in much the same way as the harem, this Roman and Byzantine tradition developed into a key facet in Turkish society. Not only viewed as a sacred place where followers of Islam could fulfill their precept of cleanliness, it was also seen as a social center, where bath-goers could meet and gossip amongst themselves. Contrary to popular belief, hamams have always been segregated, with entirely different baths or differing schedules separating the sexes. Traditionally, young women would commute between their harem and the hamam in resplendent fashion, accompanied by servants who bore the delicacies that would tide the ladies over during their long hours of lounging about in the steam, visiting and whispering secrets. Of course, the opportunity was not lost for the young women to flaunt the richness of their possessions and the fullness of their figures as they displayed their fine towels, replete with intricate embroidery, and their ivory-adorned slippers. The older ladies remained ever on the lookout for promising candidates to marry their sons. Men, on the other hand, would use the opportunity to discuss matters considered to be of more import, such as business, politics or, more often than not, the particulars of some recent scandal at court.
Photo by Erdal Ersoy
On the gobek tasi - Resting pleasure.
The traditional hamam experience would not be complete without the classic accoutrements with which it has become associated. Though many are no longer widely used, they remain readily available for purchase, and are a must for full enjoyment of the time-honored ritual. Still in use is the pestemal, a colorful, checkered cloth, worn wrapped around the waists of the men and women. Despite having been mostly replaced by rubber flip-flops, traditionally, inlaid or carved wooden clogs, known as Takunyalar were also used. Copper or even gold-plated tarak kutusu, comb boxes were employed for carrying toiletries such as soap and shampoo while a copper tas was customarily employed for pouring water over the bathers.
The Ottoman era saw the construction of numerous hamams, with forty being built by Sinan alone. From the outside, they all share a distinctive domed silhouette with bottle-thick glass acting to focus the beams of sunlight inwards. You enter by way of the camekan, a square courtyard sporting a fountain and surrounded by small private changing rooms. In turn, you head through a small area for cooling-off, known as the sogukluk, which opens into the hot steam and marble covered baths of the hararet.
The gobek tasi or navel stone rises out of the middle of the hararet, a marble platform upon which the bathers lay to partake of a kese.
The stone’s position, directly above the wood or coal furnaces which heat the hamam, warm the bathers as they receive the vigorous massage performed with a glove of coarse cloth which exfoliates a lifetime’s worth of dead skin cells from their bodies. Bathers, upon leaving the hamam, may recline on a couch in the privacy of their private changing room or choose to recover their energies with a cool drink in the camekan.
Photo by Erdal Ersoy
On the gobek tasi - Turkish Soap bathing!
Despite having largely gone out of style in Turkey, many historical hamams survive. A visit is most certainly highly recommended. The town of Bursa is well-renowned for its many baths and spas, though the most popular historic baths are still to be found in Istanbul, in addition to the Galatasaray Hamam in Beyoglu, and Cagaloglu Hamam in Sultanahmet. You may discover, however, that local bath houses are often considered of similar quality and may be substantially cheaper.