My first experience in a hammam was in in Morocco. It reminded me more of an activity Dick Cheney would sign approval for than a spa treatment. The room was spartan with close walls and one hard bench to sit on. The door shut heavily from the outside.The heat was stifling. The language barrier was stiff. I was left, naked except for bikini bottoms for long stretches. Then a large, topless woman came in, barked orders that I didn’t quite understand and scrubbed and pulled at my skin until it was raw and I whimpered. The water was boarded over my head in a continuous stream, leaving me gasping like a fish. This went on for around half an hour.Then I paid around 70 euro for it.
Yet a hammam is something that you’ll probably think you experience when you go to certain countries, Turkey being one.
A hammam won’t be for everyone. I hope this will help you decide if it’s for you.
I can happily report that the hammam at the historical Cemberlitas Hammami in Istanbul is a far cry from my first experience.
For one, it’s a staggeringly beautiful building. The Cemberlitas Hammami was established by Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Selim II and mother of Murat III, and was designed by the Sultan’s architect Mimar Sinan in 1584. Along with the sound of women tittering, water sloshing and the faint smell of chlorine, behind the ornate interior doors, history permeates the air.
Inside it’s divided into the men’s and women’s sections. At the front counter you choose what level of service you want- whether to just steam and scrub yourself, to be scrubbed and washed by one of the attendants, and whether you want an additional massage (a scrub, plus a 30 minute oil head and neck massage was 117 TL)
You’ll be given tokens for each level of service, a brand new scrubbing mitt in a paper pack, rubber slippers, a locker key a pestamal (cotton wrap, a little larger than a tea towel) . For the ladies you’ll also be given a pair of rather large black cotton briefs. From that point you say good bye to any male companions and you go place your belongings in a locker before descending in your towel and pants to the steaming room.
From here it’s like stepping into a scene from a soft porn Indiana Jones. It’s a large cavernous room, dominated by the raised circular marble göbek taşı (tummy stone). High above that is the domed roof, pocked with a constellation of circles and stars to let in beams of light.
They say the hammams are at their busiest between 4pm and 8pm. When I went at 7pm on a torrential Saturday night the platform was filled with women of all ages, reclining topless on their towels on the warm surface. There were around 10 attendants on hand. Soon one of them, a middle aged Turkish woman, naked spare for a pair of mesh underwear obscured by an apron of flesh took my hand, gestured for one of my tokens and led me to a spot. I lay there for ten minutes and before she came to souse me in suds, using a device not dissimilar from the hoops you used to make bubbles to float on the wind as a child. Then there was a lot of scrubbing. In this hammam it wasn’t aggressive, just persistent.
Throughout the hammam there was a mix of young girls to old women, both Turkish and tourists. It’s otherworldly; loud with sloshing and humming with conversation. Time seems to warp when you’re in the heat and beneath the dome.
After the soaping and scrubbing and sluicing you’re led to a stool where your hair is washed. Here, thankfully you’re given warning before water is dumped all over your head.
After your hair has been washed you’re free to go and spend some time in the two adjoining jacuzzi baths, filled with hot chalky water. Stay for as long as you please. If you’ve booked a massage then at some point, when your fingers have started to pucker move upstairs and wait until a masseuse is available. Upstairs, everyone is clothed to a greater degree. And there are warm large towels.
The head and neck massage is sheer bliss. You know a massage is good when three quarters of the way through you’re filled with anxiety; the creeping dread that it’s all about to end. Surely there must be a word for that.
There are other reports on the internet that talk about how traumatic the Cermbelitas Hammami is. To them, I say; buck up. It’s a unique experience that takes you somewhere else. And if that’s not the point of travel, then I don’t know what is.
Go with an open mind and an acceptance that you will see a lot of women of various shapes and sizes in differing states of undress. Go to see a beautiful building. And go to get very, very clean.
That being said, The Hungry One can report that the male side was a lot less gentle, where he was witness to grown men shallow breathing from the vigour of the scrub downs they were subjected to.
Hints and tips:
If you’re a lady that’s smaller than a size 12, you may want to bring your own plain black cotton briefs. It’ll help them stay up (and let you tuck your tokens into the hip- you don’t want to lose them once you’re inside).
While there are hairdryers and space to get presentable in the change rooms, my advice would be to not plan on doing anything that involves a lot of conversation, or alcohol after a hammam. You’ll probably be wafty and relaxed- essentially a little stoned. The best thing to do is drink a lot of water, put on some moisturizer and drift into a very, very good sleep.
If you’re going with a friend, acknowledge that you’re going to be sitting topless next to each other for quite a while. Make a joke of it. Then keep your eyes up.
Vezirhan Cad. No: 8,
34440 Çemberlitaş / İstanbul
Telephone: +90-212-522 79 74, 212-520 18 50
Entrance: 45 TL (self-service)
Traditional style: 69 TL (entrance+15-minute body scrub and bubble wash)
Luxury style: 117 TL (entrance+15-minute body scrub and bubble wash+30-minute oil massage)
Includes VAT, the unlimited use of the bath, towel, slippers, bikini underwear, shampoo, soap and a locker with key.