Authenticity in Istanbul: a tale of two hamams

Istanbul, Turkey. The Hagia Sophia sits in Sultanahmet, Istanbul's old quarter, facing the Blue Mosque.

Istanbul, Turkey. The Hagia Sophia sits in Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s old quarter, facing the Blue Mosque.

An expanding tourist industry brings billions of dollars into Turkey annually. As in many other European countries, there is a fine line to be walked in attempts to maintain culturally significant national landmarks while profiting off of paying visitors.

Setting Turkey apart, however, is the above-global average of gross domestic product brought in by the tourism industry; a sweeping 12 per cent in 2014 compared with a three-percentage point lower worldwide average, according to a recent report.

The World Travel and Tourism Council report, carried out by Oxford Economics, says Turkey’s travel and tourism sector has expanded by 256 per cent since 1990. The overall economy has expanded by a mere 110 per cent.

Despite European economic problems, Turkish tourism representatives anticipate to host 42 million tourists this year alone – five million more than last year.
In early May, I was one of the millions of tourists to visit Istanbul, and became suspicious that I could be visiting an Ottoman Empire Disney World.

Istanbul itself is a particularly interesting city; sitting on both the European and Asian continents.

***

The rich-in-history Hagia Sophia and breathtaking Blue Mosque have towered in Sultanahmet, the old quarter of Istanbul, since the early 17th century and are known worldwide. Nestled in between the proud Ottoman-style architecture is where you’ll find the even older Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam. Dating back to 1557, the Turkish bathhouse has undergone a world of transformations while Istanbul’s growing pains ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries.

If you can tune out the herds of circling tourists, swarming guide buses, and men selling roasted chestnuts at every corner while standing in the presence of such grandeur, it almost feels as though you’ve time traveled.

Taking in the vast Turkish scenery, I meet a man who tells me that there are five things every tourist must do while in Istanbul; eat Turkish food, visit the Blue Mosque, find a Turkish boyfriend, go on a boat cruise, and visit a hamam.

It was the latter that I found to be most intriguing, despite his intent on making me his Canadian girlfriend.

Derived from a culture that historically demanded cleanliness before worshiping, during an era predating modern showers, bathhouses became a staple of what was once the most powerful empire in the world for over 600 years. My fascination with this ancient tradition is partially what led me to Turkey in the first place.

***

Hikmet Güveli Bayinder, the manager of Hürrem Sultan, sits calmly beside me, cradling a mug of tea in the crook of her hand. Her navy blue bomber jacket and floral scarf ooze professionalism as her curly hair attempts to break free from her ponytail. I first contacted her through Hürrem Sultan’s Facebook page.

“The hamam is 458 years old. In the middle of the century they started restoration, the government, and then it opened as a carpet museum until 2007. Since 2007 we just rent from the government, we made some big renovations, it takes three and a half years, and after that it’s 2011 and we reopen again as a real ottoman bathhouse,” she says, underplaying the great task of bathhouse renovation.

 

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The outside of Hürrem Sultan isn’t nearly as impressive as what awaits inside. The stucco exterior is a pale peach colour, while the domed roofs make the building appear mosque-like.

Upon stepping inside, you are greeted by golden-brown woodworking, which sections off various changing rooms, locker sections, relaxing areas, and massage rooms. There is a massive marble fountain in the centre of the entryway, perhaps to soothe the nerves of those who’ve never stripped down and been scrubbed by someone they’ve never met.
I am greeted at the door, and instructed to head to the reception counter, which sits behind the fountain. There are necklaces, rings, and other accessories under the counter for sale. My booking is confirmed, I pay, and I am handed a bag, which contains a purple, plaid terry-cloth towel and a pair of sandals.
My apprehension was fairly quickly whisked away. I was washed down in a room so full of marble and gold plating that my jaw nearly drops. I am then covered in a clay body mask, washed down again, bubble bathed, washed down again, massaged, and shampooed. All the while, my “therapist” led me about, taking my hand and showing me where to go. After cooling down, I am brought upstairs to a massage room and rubbed with scented oils that smelled like heaven. I never wanted to leave.
“Our job is to make people relaxed, and to give energy to clients. I watch my clients like they’re my baby,” says Shirvan, the head-therapist at the hamam.

All the therapists are dressed in outfits that I recognize as dental hygienist or nurse-wear. They are tan, but outlined in a light pink. When they begin washing down clients, they wrap themselves in purple cloths.
“I love this family,” Shirvan tells me.
My big question all the while I was there, though, was whether I was being treated as a local would be in any other hamam, or if Hürrem Sultan was perhaps the tourist version of what an actual bathhouse could be like, where unknowing visitors readily pay exorbitant amounts for what they deem to be the most luxurious treatment. Do Turkish people even still visit hamams, I wondered?
“70 per cent are tourists, but the Turkish people coming in are about 30 per cent,” Bayinder tells me.
Asking her whether bathhouse traditions have changed at all, she insists they have not.

“We are using ottoman style. It’s not changeable. It is ritual.”
So, lead my curiosity, I began to research which hamams are used by Turkish locals.

***

I decided I’d better take a taxi. Looking up Tarihi Kocamustafaphasa Hamimi, Google Maps revealed it as being a 50-minute walk, fairly manageable, but with my nonexistent sense of direction and relatively limited time, I opted for the easy way.

We eventually pull up alongside the strip-mall-like building that it is a part of. The only indication that it’s a bathhouse is a rusty metal sign hanging from the building. Inset blue mosaic tiles that have seen better days line the entrance-way.
I pull the door open with as much confidence as I can muster, and am greeted by the gaze of at least 20 women, some sitting, others standing. There is a noticeable stench of cigarette smoke. For a moment, there is silence.

“Tourist!” shouts a topless woman, jumping up, wearing only a red gingham towel wrapped around her waist, who I realize works there.
Here we go, I think to myself, while I spot several signs that seem to say “no smoking.” As she motions towards a white plastic sign hanging from the wall behind her, I am overwhelmed. The reception area, if you want to call it that, is to the left of the entrance. It consists of a small wooden podium with a calculator and a few stray papers. The centre area is open, with benches for seating and some type of water feature, which looks more like an over-sized birdbath. The walls are boarded, painted white and rimmed with forest green. There are changing rooms around 3 sides of the room.
“Scrub?! Massage?!” she asks, all the while pointing at the amazingly low prices listed on a sign. I muster a nod and she seems to understand.
Handing me a small key ring with the number nine on it, she leads me to my assigned changing room. I set down my camera (a dead giveaway that I’m not a local) and my purse, and she reappears with a wrap for me – the exact same as the one she has draped around her own hips.
Now that I am familiar with this drill, I strip inside my dimly lit changing area. Wearing just a teeny pair of bikini bottoms and the strange table cloth-towel I step out of my room.
“Lady! Lady! Lady!” shouts the woman, pointing aggressively at my bare feet.
I turn around, and see the tiniest pair of white rubber sandals sitting on the ground. Those will have to do, I thought to myself as I squeezed my size 42 feet into child-sized footwear.
I am handed a circular, pink plastic container and lead back into the bath room, where one other woman is pouring water over her head using a similar pink bucket as I’ve been given. The air is thick with steam and it is a little hard to breathe.
“Sit!” I am instructed as my Turkish bathhouse guru turns the faucets on and begins dousing me in warm water. She gives me a look, nods, and walks away. Uh oh.
There is no aroma of lavender, lemongrass and lilac, as there was at Ayasofya, but the atmosphere is so comfortable that I don’t even mind being naked in front of others.
Attempting to appear as though I know what is going on, I nonchalantly continue to pour water on myself, using the pink circle to throw it at myself from the marble sink I am sitting beside. I can’t help but be impressed by the interior architecture. After the lack-luster entranceway, I had anticipated a 1980s era décor for the bathing area.

I am blown away by what seems to be more or less original marble work, which climbs halfway up the walls, meeting a flesh-toned plaster. The domed ceilings have star-shaped cut outs, like those at Hürrem Sultan, to let in sunlight and heat the marble.
Other women begin to filter into the sauna, all of them topless with some kind of underwear bottom on. The room is rectangular, with a slightly raised marble edge that everyone sits on. There are two marble slabs in the centre of the room. I can’t help myself from gazing around the room, but no one seems to notice.
I am almost through with dumping water onto myself when the woman returns, having gotten rid of her plaid waist covering in exchange for a pair of small black panties. I almost hoped she’d forgotten about me.
Leading me to the further marble slab, she motions for me to loose my gingham towel as well. I unwrap myself like an apprehensive child at swimming lessons.
“Up!”
I climb up onto the slab, instantly warmed to a sweat by its radiating heat. This was the beginning of my full body, exfoliating scrub. She rubs and rubs and rubs my entire body (believe me, she did my entire body), until I imagine there was merely a single layer of skin left. At Hurrem Sultan Hamam, the scrubbing mitt was far gentler, more like a loofah. This mitt was comparable to sand paper, and not for the faint of heart.
Following the scrub, she rinses me, then has me lie alongside another nude woman for a thorough soaping and massage. We lay so close to each other at one point her toe almost pierces my eye. Fortunately, my vision remains intact. Only two women were working at the hamam, despite it being quite packed.
The soap has the same subtle scent of lemongrass as it did during my first hamam visit, and I drift off into a world of relaxation, as what I assume is Turkish music blares from the entrance-way until I am instructed to flip over so my stomach can be lathered.
Again I am thoroughly rinsed, and told to sit. I feel like I am in kindergarten listening to a teacher, but the mindlessness of the whole activity is freeing.
Returning with a bottle of shampoo the size of a wholesale bottle of ketchup, I sit on the ground while she takes a seat behind me, wrapping her legs around my sides.

This process turned into a facial-shampooing, and again I feared for my eyesight as the suds trickled in. She was rough, forceful even, but it felt nice to be so attentively cleaned by an expert.
My curly hair clumped itself into a matted mess, and the woman beside me couldn’t help noticing.
“Cream for your hair,” she said smiling, as she passed over a small bottle of conditioner. It wasn’t her fault that she nearly removed my eyeball.
I sat for a while, enjoying the warmth of the room, the humidity given off by the water flowing from over 10 basins, and the overall feeling of acceptance I garnered from the group of Turkish women with whom I couldn’t even speak.
Once redressed, I exit into what seems to be a dance party. The women dancing wear bikinis, some lingerie, and all appear entirely care free. I take a seat on a nearby bench, having gone out of my comfort zone enough for one day, only to be asked to join in by a girl who looked no older than 20.
Everyone cheers as a women in her forties climbs into the bird bath and begins spinning around, shaking her hips, and waving her hands. These women know how to have fun.

“My friend,” the young girl who invited me to dance motions towards another girl about the same age, wearing light pink bustier, “will be a bride next week!”

“Congratulations! That’s so great,” I say to her.
When I try to ask her name, she begins dancing. I attempt to join in, to the amusement of the others, but my moves just weren’t meant for their music and I laugh off my spastic twitching. I think I may have alarmed some of the bachelorette party.
I pay my bill, a measly 34 Turkish Liras, and wave goodbye to all my new, hardly known friends. They all smile and wave, some giggle.

***

Authenticity is rampant in Istanbul; easily found and hard to pass up. The tourist attractions are famous for good reason, however stepping off the beaten path was far more rewarding than following my tourist guide.
Deemed as a traditional Ottoman Empire aspect, bathhouse culture isn’t extinct, nor does it continue to exist solely for tourists; it’s simply a practice that continues to evolve alongside the lifestyles of Turkish individuals.
Despite Turkey’s above-average and ever-expanding economic dependence on the tourism industry, it remains a vibrant city that simply requires a bit of research to find what you’re looking for.

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