Hammam: A ritual in bathing

ISTANBUL, TURKEY: With very few exceptions, I usually take a trip in January to start my year. This year’s birthday trip was to Istanbul, Turkey.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY: With very few exceptions, I usually take a trip in January to start my year. The first month is less about New Years for me as it is an actual new year. I am a January baby, born on the same day as Robert E. Lee, Dolly Parton, and Edgar Allen Poe. This year’s birthday trip was to Istanbul, Turkey.

In the weeks before heading out, when anyone asked me what I had on the itinerary, almost without hesitation my response was “hammam.” I have been to spas, steam rooms, saunas and even a hammam in Morocco previously, but I hadn’t been to a Turkish bath, so I looked forward to this excursion and put no little amount of time and research into selecting the hammam I was going to visit while in Istanbul. I decided on Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. Constructed in the 16th century and meticulously renovated in the last few years, it is located across the street from the Tophane stop on the T1 tramline.

This particular hammam has an atypical history. Unlike many of the other grand mosques (Camii) built in Istanbul by its sultans of the Ottoman era, Kılıç Ali Paşa Camii was founded by an Ottoman captain who happened to have been a former slave. Subsequently the mosque and hammam are named for, Kılıç Ali Paşa. Over time Ali Paşa proved himself and his naval skills to become quite famous in his day, referenced apparently in various literary works, including Don Quixote. Kılıç, by the way, is an honorary title which means sword, and with a title like that one can assume he was a master of weaponry.

While it may seem strange to think of a relaxing and tranquil environment such as a hammam being associated with a military hero, one has to be familiar with the culture of the period. A hammam was considered a public service and as such usually part of a larger complex centered around a mosque. Ali Paşa, our renowned admiral, was by this time nearing the end of his life. As he was a prestigious admiral, he likely gained considerable wealth to equal his notoriety and thought the best way he could give back to the community, whist honoring his adopted country was to build a mosque. Mosques complexes ,can include facilities which service both the religious and cultural needs of the public such as a hospital (darüşşifa), school, bazaar, public kitchen (imaret) serving the poor, as well as the prayer hall we are all familiar with. In return, some of these services would provide an income to help sustain the mosque over time. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or Blue Mosque, includes many of these features today; in addition to the above it also has a mausoleum (türbe), another typical function of a mosque.

Floor plan of Kiliç Ali Pasa Külliyesi complex showing (1) mosque, (2) mausoleum (türbe), (3) madrasa, (4) hammam, (5) cannon foundry, (6) public fountain (1732) Necipoglu, Gülru. The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire. London: Reaktion Books, 2005.
Floor plan of Kiliç Ali Pasa Külliyesi complex showing (1) mosque, (2) mausoleum (türbe), (3) madrasa, (4) hammam, (5) cannon foundry, (6) public fountain (1732)
Source: Necipoglu, Gülru. The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire. London: Reaktion Books, 2005.

The hammam ritual, as I like to refer to it, is not for everyone. But for those who can accept it for what it is and not feel awkward or uncomfortable or even on display, it can be a relaxing and rewarding experience. It is almost strange to think how distant and removed Westerners are from public bathing. The convenience of having a bath in your own home has removed the social nature bathing once provided. At the same time, it is curious how a society known for being closed and conservative in the West (Burqas for example) still utilize the hammam frequently, while in the more liberal West many women cringe at the idea of going to a hammam . A broad generalization I realize, but having taken an informal poll of my female friends, most say they would be too shy or uncomfortable, and I for one cannot imagine making a family affair out of it.

So what really goes on inside these beautiful, ancient buildings? In many ways it actually isn’t that different from going to a commercial spa at an Arizona resort or a mud bath in the California hot springs.

Upon arrival to Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı I was greeted by an attendant who invited me to a small cafe style table situated by a large fountain. This is the most dominate room of Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı with a large dome overhead. The dome itself is perforated by small holes to allow light into the building. Istanbul is chock full of exotic (and some not so exotic) scents. The fragrances inside the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı are clean and light, almost a mild flowery smell to compliment the surroundings, nothing overly powerful to the senses. More important to me none of it is the saccharine scents found perfumes – akin to the natural essential oils which evaporate through a diffuser.

After being served homemade şerbet (a lightly sweetened drink) I was asked a few questions, again not unlike a commercial spa: any medicines, allergies or skin sensitivities and the like?

Once the formalities where complete I was provided with a key for a locker and shown upstairs to the changing room. This is where you shed your clothes. You are advised to bring an extra pair of underwear as you will wear a pair during your hammam ritual, but in many hammams the locals will go completely al naturel, as well as bring their own soap, shampoo, etc. There are a few hammams which will provide you with a disposable pair of underwear if you like. I was not required to bring the kit and caboodle, so after undressing I was provided with only a clean pair of spa sandals and a pestemal, which is a Turkish linen that you cover up with when walking around, and once in the hot room, or Sicaklik, you will wear it around your hips with your upper body uncovered.

Making my way back downstairs I was taken into the hammam proper. Greeted by Serpa, my natır for the duration, I was escorted first to a bathing room where Serpa removed my pestemal, folding it into a small square and placing it neatly on a marble shelf beside a sink. She motioned me to sit down, “lady, please.” This is where she doused me several times with equal parts cool and warm to medium hot water using a hammam bowl. A hammam bowl can be metal or plastic – some of the antique hammam bowls are elaborately decorated by hand.

After I was sufficiently watered down she led me into the larger hot room, the Sicaklik, where she asked again, “lady, please” directing me towards the Göbektaşı, a large marble pedestal in the middle of the room. Serpa told me to lay down. The marble is kept very warm so that your pours open up and the skin starts to soften as you lay on its hot surface. I found this part very relaxing, staring up into the large white dome overhead, and again looking out the tiny holes in the ceiling. I meditated on the spaciousness of the building, the dripping of the water, the whispers of the other woman and natır who were a step ahead of me in the process. This is where I imagine a more crowded hammam could be equal parts interesting and annoying, given your level of stress and ability to zone out with others in the room, particularly if they are chattering away. Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı encourages speaking softly so I was spared having to overhear any real conversation. It also helped that it was a Tuesday late morning when others were no doubt at work.

Some say you should try to hang out on the Göbektaşı for as long as you can stand it, 30 or 45 minutes if possible. I did not feel I needed that long, and it was maybe 15 or 20 minutes before I heard the familiar “lady, please” from Serpa, signaling me it was time for the next part of the ritual.

Sicaklik with marble Göbektaşı at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı in Istanbul, Turkey
Sicaklik with marble Göbektaşı at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı in Istanbul, Turkey

This is where the hammam experience goes a bit off course from Western spa treatments and harkens back to the days of its origin – ancient Rome. I think of this as how a fantastically wealthy aristocrat is bathed, or a child by its mother perhaps. After again being drenched in warm water from head to toe, Serpa points to another marble shelf where my pestemal has been laid out for me to sit on. From a plastic bag she takes out a kese, which is a special mitt used for scrubbing dead skin off the body. You might have your own kese if visiting hammam was a regular event for you. Some of these are made from organic materials such as goat hair, others a scratchy plastic; I’ve even had a type of loofa used at the hammam in Morocco. In a more local hammam you might ask the woman sitting next to you to help exfoliate the hard to reach areas, but be prepared to reciprocate the gesture.

After Serpa had thoroughly removed the dead skin from my body, she again poured alternating cool and warm water over my body to rinse the dead skin. By this time I was standing up. She made certain the area round me was kept clean and any pools of water were routed towards the drain. A fresh pestemal was laid out and again I was summoned to sit on the marble shelf next to the sink, “lady, please.”

While I sat down, staring up at the ceiling, admiring the simple beauty of the marble room, Serpa prepared a soapy mixture in a bucket nearby. Once satisfied with its consistency she took out a clean white towel, resembling a pillow case more than towel, and began dunking it into the soapy water then swaying it back and forth so that the towel would open up into what I can only describe as an air pillow. She then rang the towel out over my body. Soapy bubbles covered me completely. By the time she was done I probably resembled a dog having a shampoo at the groomer’s, with only my head visible under the clouds of soap bubble. Serpa at this point began what is called (for obvious reason) a bubble massage, focusing primarily on my neck, back, arms, legs and feet, but also my stomach and chest, avoiding any sensitive parts – i.e. breasts. Although your butt might be massaged, that’s about as touchy-feely as anyone gets in a hammam in my experience, and it’s completely normal, not at all the “happy ending” type of massages you hear about in the sleazy parlors along old 14th Street in New York.

Following the bubble massage Serpa shampooed and conditioned my hair, then drowned me again in equal measures hot and cool water, thoroughly rinsing off the bubbles, soap, shampoo and conditioner all at once. She led me out of the big room with the Göbektaşı and into a drying room. My sandals were put back on my feet and I was bundled into two dry pestemals. I think at this point in a local hammam the natır might be hinting for her tip, but Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı is considered an upscale hammam and Serpa wished me a good day before sending me back out to the main room with the fountain, tipping being saved for the point when I settle the bill. In fact, I have been offered, advised and consulted on products and services in Western spas, in other words pushed or sold, thereby ruining the experience that is meant to be a relaxing escape from everyday stress. It is very much the opposite at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, where discreet envelopes are provided at the register when you pay, and keep in mind that much like restaurants in America, Turkey has a strong tipping culture for good service. So if you are being pressured to tip chances are you are at an establishment that is quite possibly not providing a service worth paying for, much less tipping.

After the hammam ritual you may stay as long as you like in the main room, perhaps enjoy another şerbet or a Turkish tea. This is part of the socializing culture of a hammam, in a local hammam where regulars from the neighborhood visit on a weekly basis. Some other light food might be available if the establishment provides it, and you are encouraged to lounge and rest as long as you like, sleep even if that’s what you feel you need to do. If you do chose to take a nap you may want to ask the attendant to wake you after a certain amount of time. I had booked an hour long full body massage offered at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı so carried on with the treatment. This is more of extra and may not necessarily be offered at all hammams.

There are many hammams dotting the ancient cities of the Middle East and Africa with variants of what I have described, but essentially this is all there is to a hammam ritual. I highly recommend it if you find yourself in a city that has one. The more modern establishments will deviate somewhat, restricted by local building codes they might not have a Göbektaşı for example but they will provide for something which does an equally good job. In Morocco I was lathered in a black olive soap before being shown into a dark, exceptionally hot steam room, it is just as effective a method as the Turkish bath, although lacking the bubble massage. So like the many different cultures there can be different hammam rituals, all achieving the same goal of leaving you feeling lighter, cleaner and relaxed.

A few other hammams in Istanbul which I looked into but did not visit are listed below. I chose Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı because it fit what I was looking for on this particular occasion, but if I return to Istanbul I may decide to visit any of the other hammams in the city.

"Turkish Bath in London" by Herry Lawford. Sadly, this gem is not in use at the moment. I walk pass it often hoping it will show signs of reviving, but none so far.
“Turkish Bath in London” by Herry Lawford. Sadly, this gem is not in use at the moment. I walk pass it often hoping it will show signs of reviving, but none so far.

Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammami: An Ottoman era hammam in the Tophane district of Istanbul, built in the 16th century. English-speaking staff. Credit cards accepted.

Phone: 0090 212 393 8010
Web: www.kilicalipasahamami.com
E-mail: info@kilicalipasahamami.com
Hours: between 8:00 a.m. and midnight. Women-only hours 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Last reservation 2:30 p.m. Men-only hours 4:30 p.m. – 11:30 p.m. Last reservation 10:30 p.m.

Cemberlitas Hammami: Another historic Ottoman era hammam in Istanbul, built in 1584. English-speaking staff. Credit cards accepted.

Phone: 0090 212 520 18 50 / 0090 212 520 15 33
Web: www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr
E-mail: contact@cemberlitashamami.com.tr
Hours:  between 6:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. and has sections for both men and women but check this hasn’t changed before visiting.

Suleymaniye Hammami: Built in 1577 and inaugurated by Sultan Suleiman (Suleiman the Magnificent). After the ceremony, Suleiman entered the hammam for bathing.

Phone: 0090 212 520 34 10
E-mail: contact@suleymaniyehamami.com.tr

Cagaloglu Hammami: Built in 1741. The staff speaks English. There is a restaurant-bar at the entrance of the men’s section. Reservation required for dinner. Credit cards accepted.

Phone: 0090 212 522 24 24/ 0090 212 512 85 53
Hours: For women between 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. For men between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. but check this is still the case prior to going

Galatasaray Hammami: Built in 1715 in Beyoglu.

Phone: 0090 212 252 42 42
Hours: For women between 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. For men between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. call to confirm this has not changed. 

Buyuk Hamam (The Grand Hammam): It is located in Kasimpasa where tourists usually do not visit. This hammam has more local attendees compared to the  others. It was built in 1533 by Mimar Sinan together with the mosque that is located just next to the hammam. There is a pool which is only for men and requires an extra fee.

Phone: 0090 212 253 42 29
Hours: For women between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. For men between 6:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. call to confirm. 

Cinili Hamam (the Tiled Hammam): Built in 1548 by Mimar Sinan in Üsküdar (Asian side). The hammam has maintained its original structure. Both men’s and women’s sections of the hammam have the same architectural style.

Phone: 0090 212 631 88 83
Hours: For women between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. For men between 6:30 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. call to confirm.

The Aga Hammami: Located on Beyoglu Istiklal Street. It was built by Yakup Aga in 1562. The hammam has been through a lot of renovations and lost the original structure yet it’s still beautiful. It is one of the few hammams of Istanbul that is open 24 hours.

Phone: 0090 212 249 50 27
Hours: For men 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. For women between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. (every day except Sundays) call to confirm this has not changed. 

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