“Come, come.” The woman gently takes my arm and steers me into the large round room. “Come” is the only word she knows in English, which makes her one word up on me, as I don’t speak a word of Turkish. But perhaps it’s just as well we can’t have a conversation, as I’m completely unclothed in a room with several other women, and no one is making much small talk. Each of us has our own attendant, each of them gesturing for us to sit here, move there, lie this way, and stand here, while she variously pours water over us, exfoliates us, soaps us, covers us with clay masks, scrubs us, shampoos our hair, and generally makes us about as clean as it is possible for a human being to be.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Traveling and touring all day is exhausting. This is rejuvenating.
- This is an opportunity to have a traditional centuries-old experience in an authentic setting.
- Good for: Travelers in search of exotic experiences. And anyone who needs a bath after a long day of touring.
I am in the AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami (hamam means a Turkish bath) in Istanbul at the end of three days of traipsing through and around museums, monuments, and mosques. I have saved this treat for the last part of my last day, and as I lean back, luxuriating, it occurs to me that there may have been a few perks in the life of a concubine.
The Turkish bath is a ritual as old as time in this ancient part of the world. The bathhouse in which I am sitting was built in 1566 — on the site of an even older public bath complex that dates to the first or second century A.D. Before that, Zeus was workshipped here. We’re talking old.
The choreography of a Turkish bath is not set in stone, but it is ritualized and, when done traditionally, proceeds at a relaxed pace (although some of the scrubbing ministrations can better be described as vigorous). Like a Japanese tea ceremony or a native American sweat lodge, it is a process of removing oneself from the outside world and focusing on a moment-to-moment present-tense experience.
I had just toured the harems of the Topkapi Palace which were designed by the same architect who designed the Ayasofya Hamam. I’d seen the sultan’s chambers and baths, and the hall of the concubines, surrounded by their baths. Now I was in one, having the same experience in the same kind of surroundings they might have enjoyed three or four hundred years ago.
The Ayasofya Haman is one of the more expensive bath experiences in Istanbul, and it’s marketed to tourists and upscale Turks. But don’t be fooled by the bilingual flyers, the multi-lingual website, and pricing in Euros. There is nothing inauthentic here. For those who complain that the experience is touristy, I would point out that in addition to the bathing and massage treatments popular with tourists, the hamam offers services grounded in local traditions: wedding treatments that include henna hand painting, bride and groom baths, and a ritual to celebrate the circumcision of a newborn.
The domed hamami building was built by the architect Mimar Sinan for Hurrem, a slave who became one of the most powerful wives of Suleiman the Magnificent. It was used as a bathhouse until 1910, when it fell into various disparate and dissonant uses: as housing for convicts when the Sultanahmet prison was full, as a storage facility for paper and oil, and as a carpet bazaar, filled with rugs and the sounds of bargaining. A three-year 10-million-dollar restoration, begun in 2008, has brought it back to its original purpose, and it reopened as a bathhouse in 2011.
There are many cheaper bathhouses in Istanbul, but this one appealed to me for several reasons, not the least of which was that it was easy to find: It is located smack between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. A quick peek inside told me that it was also spotlessly clean and stunningly beautiful, The hamami are faced with 1300 square meters of marmara marble. The hundred-foot-tall domed ceilings are lit by colored lights — the ceiling in the reception room was a shining purplish-blue. A brochure informed me that I’d be using a gold-plated bath bowl, bath wraps made of silk and cotton, and special olive oil soap and redbud shampoo. I wasn’t exactly sure what a “redbud extract cleansing” or a “peeling and moisturing body clay mask” would do, but there was only one way to find out.
The Hamam Experience
First things first: There are no actual baths in a Turkish bathhouse. It’s not really a spa experience, either: The experience is not dissimilar, but the service, at this one at least, was more matter-of-fact, and the menu much more limited. The process is also a little confusing if you’ve never been before and aren’t exactly sure what’s going to happen when.
After arriving at my scheduled time (bookings are recommended, especially during busy seasons) I was shown into a locker room, and told to remove my clothing and lock everything up. Covered with a bath wrap, I went back into the main room where an attendant led me to a round marble room with a domed ceiling and a round marble platform in the middle. The temperature was warm — perhaps 100 degrees — much less brutally hot than a steam room or a sauna; this is a gentle heat, more relaxing than challenging. (There are, however, other “hot rooms” with temperatures that can soar to 140 degrees: temperatures I’m not fond enough of to even attempt to try.)
I sat where instructed, on a warm marble slab, and my attendant poured warm water all over me from the gold plated bowl. After a while, she left, leaving me with the bowl, and I sat there, a little unsure of what was supposed to be happening, until I decided that what was supposed to be happening was in fact happening: I was supposed to be relaxing (something I have been know to be bad at). Once in a while, I poured some water over myself, and felt the real world being washed away.
After a few minutes, my attendant reappeared, and led me to the round marble platform in the center of the room, firmly holding my elbow so I wouldn’t slide around on the slick marble floor. She gestured for me to lie down on my bath wrap. Now the magic began: She had a sort of net that she dipped into the gold-plated bowl, which must have now contained some super-power strength bubble bath: She waved the net in the air and then squeezed out of it a blanket of bubbles that covered me from head to toe. This was the scrub and foam part of the experience, and there was no shortage of either scrubbing or foaming. She had me flip over, and repeated the process, the foam forming a sort of blanket over my front, and the scrubbing taking off so many layers of skin that I wondered if I had ever before been truly clean in my life.
I had booked the “extravagant” package” (75 minutes, 100 euros), which includes a mud body mask, so we moved to another marble bench where I was then covered head to toe in mud. I was left to sit for a few minutes while the mud dried, and then my attendant came and removed it, and finished me off by washing my hair.
The “extravagant pleasures” experience ends with a massage in one of the private rooms that surround the main entry hall. I’ve heard and read critiques of the massage: Mine was fine — not especially noteworthy, but a pleasant end to a magical experience.
The only dissonant note here is occasional brusqueness among the employees. For example, as I was waiting to pay (in advance, per policy), a client who was evidently dissatisfied with the sum total of her experience came out, confusedly trying to figure out if she was done (and when she was told she had had everything she paid for, she looked distinctly unimpressed). The experience is also a bit confusing for first-timers, but just let yourself go with the flow and someone will be around to tend to you and show you where to go next.
- Make reservations in advance, by phone, Internet, or in person. Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam.
- Prices are comparable to reasonably-priced European spas: The basic service starts at around 70 euros and goes up from there.
- Tips should be about $10 to your attendant and $10 to your masseur or masseuse.
- The hamami complex also contains the Nargile Terrace (a water-pipe cafe) and the Haseki Restaurant, which serves Ottoman specialties like lamb chops with pomegranate, imperial style meatballs, and kabobs.