Sun, 08 Jun 2003

Feeling the heat in Turkish bathhouse

John Badala, Contributor, Istanbul, Turkey

There is a Turkish saying, "when you enter a hamam (bathhouse), you sweat". True indeed.

A trip to a bathhouse is intended to purify. Part of the Islamic tradition is to set strict rules for ablutions, washing hands, arms, face and feet with running water before praying. Cleanliness comes from faith, in other words.

From the earliest times, the bathhouses were for men only and the tradition continued for centuries. Nowadays, women can also visit them but of course there is no mixing. There are sections for each sex or the bathhouse will have a different time or day for men and women.

Used by many people almost on a daily basis, the bathhouses are not only a place to get clean but also for other forms of social interaction, including to arrange marriages. For instance, a mother could "screen" any prospective daughter-in-laws for her son.

It is not uncommon for brides and their friends to take over a bathhouse the night before the big day and go through the rituals of washing, depilation and even hennaing the hair.

Some 80 years ago, there were over 2,500 bathhouses in Istanbul alone. There are only a few hundred left today, most of them dating back to the 18th century. The architecture is usually in the baroque style with a star-studded dome.

Entering a bathhouse for the first time can be pretty confusing. There will be a long list of services to choose from (massages, depilation, pedicure, etc.), but it's usually only written in Turkish, so have handy a pocket dictionary before you make your choice.

After paying, you will be ushered to a camekan (a reception area) to get a checked cloth to be tied around your waist at all times (it's bad form to flash!). Get changed in a wooden cubicle. Some places give you wooden clogs that can be an adventurous walk on wet marble floors.

Before reaching the heat, there is another room called sogukluk for cooling off and a shower with toilets. The heated room is called hararet, with marble floors and featuring a great beautiful dome with star-shaped colored glass admitting streams of soft, diffuse half-light.

The steam from the hot air creates a dramatic, sensual feeling. Unlike the bathhouses in Budapest, there are no pools in the middle as Muslims consider still water to be unclean. Instead, there is a big, round marble altar known as the "navel stone", where people lie down for a massage.

The masseur will rub you down with a kese, a cloth usually made of rough, bristly camel hair. For those who are used to traditional Javanese or Balinese massage, the Turkish massage can be painful and rough.

Afterwards, you go to a small room off the main chamber to find basins with taps and water scoops. There is no time limit in the bathhouses, but a couple of hours should be sufficient. You will be given a towel when you are done and a selection of soft drinks, tea or coffee in the reception area. Drink lots of water to rehydrate.

As bathhouses are exclusively for one sex at a time, there may be some men on the prowl for more than just a sauna. If you want to avoid an unpleasant situation, visit at an earlier hour when it is not too crowded.

-- John Badalu