Istanbul: The Turkish Bath

There’s one thing that a visitor to Istanbul must not miss: the Turkish bath!

Suleymaniye Hammam

On the evening before our flight out of Istanbul, we moseyed into a Turkish bathhouse that we’d seen advertised. It was the Suleymaniye Hammam next to the Suleymaniye Mosque in old Istanbul. It was advertised as accepting couples only and catering to first-time visitors. It was convenient to our accommodations and reasonably priced. We were greeted, explained the steps of the ritual, and asked to wait a short while before being initiated into the process. We lounged barefoot on cushions of a predominantly wine-red hue punctuated by tan and gold, surrounded by natural woods, tapestries, and low, carved tables topped with brass urns. Soft threads of Turkish music spun out of hidden speakers.

After fifteen minutes or so, we were asked to go up into our private changing room where we disrobed and donned items provided by the hammam: light shorts and a bikini top and towel for me, a simple wrap-around towel for my husband.

Suleymaniye Hammam in Istanbul: reception area
Suleymaniye Hammam in Istanbul: reception area

Thus dressed, we were brought back through the waiting area and ushered through a heavy door into a warm room in which several people swathed in white robes–from head to toe, almost–were sitting on wooden benches drinking tea. Everything was hushed. We were led through another doorway into the inner sanctum: a totally stone and marble-lined, majestically domed space partially divided also by stone walls into eight or nine sections, the steamy central section holding a big marble slab supposedly heated to 40 degrees celsius. In the side niches were taps and fountains with very hot and very cold water. The corner niches each held two individual marble slabs–the massage tables, it turned out. A plaque on the wall stated that here the Sultan Suleiman had bathed.

We were told to lay ourselves out on the hot, central marble slab for about forty minutes to cook. This was to soften our tissues, relax us, and detoxify us through intense sweating. Occasionally we doused ourselves with cold or at least cool water from the side taps for relief. We lay on the slab (there were one or two other couples in with us most of the time, each couple at different stages of “doneness”), sighed, and stared through the steam at the fabulous dome above. The boys who did the body washes and massages padded in and out periodically. Sounds of splashing water and sometimes sharp slaps came periodically from the massage niches. Finally, we were called into one of the corners and each asked to sit on the low step beside a fountain. We each had a boy attending to us.

First we were sluiced down with warm to hot water and scrubbed thoroughly with invigorating exfoliating gloves the boys used. Then water was poured over us from head to toe, and we were asked to lay ourselves out face down, each on one of the two flat marble massage tables (no cushions here!). The boys enveloped us in incredibly soft and very hot blankets of suds, after which they gently but firmly pummeled us and kneaded us until we felt even more floppy, then we were rinsed. We turned over and the process was repeated on the top side. Once done, they washed our hair, rinsed us off again, and told us we could lay out and relax a few more minutes in the steam room before they would initiate the final rinsing, drying, and cooling off process.

We were taken to a small room where we discarded our shorts and towels and rinsed ourselves off one final time. We were thereafter wrapped head-to-toe in soft, white robes. We were escorted into the anteroom with the wooden benches through which we’d entered and told we could sit, cool down, and rehydrate here with water, coffee, or tea for as long as we wished before going back to our changing room and returning to street clothes. We stayed there quite a long time. I’m not quite sure if we were just unwilling or totally unable to move.

Back in our clothes, we settled down on the cushions in the reception area once again and were served cups of hot apple tea. Mmm. The whole Turkish bath procedure normally takes about ninety minutes, but I think we were in there for significantly longer out of choice, what with our prolonged pre- and post-steam bath relaxation periods. Why go anywhere else when it’s so comfortable and warm?

As we floated contentedly out the door into the streets of late-afternoon Istanbul, our wrists were spritzed liberally with rosewater for one last, sensuous touch…

The real reason I want to return to Istanbul is not the general intrigue of the city on the crossroads of Europe and Asia, but it is to go back to the Turkish bath.