November 11, 2011

A Visit to the 16th-Century Cemberlitas Turkish Bath in Istanbul

Muhammad Lila - Gotta hand it to him, for a man whose loincloth is dangling dangerously close to wardrobe malfunction, this guy sure doesn’t say much.

I’m sprawled out, in a loincloth of my own, sweaty, steamy and slippery, in a room filled with nearly naked men. Some are covered in soapy bubbles. Others, like me, are lying flat, the flesh on our backs baking against the burning hot marble slab in the centre of the room.

Soap? Check. Plastic sandals? Check. Nerves of steel as I’m squeezed and contorted in ways that are painfully pleasurable? Check.

My body is being crinkled, thwapped and thwuddled, alternating between douses of cold and hot water. Mesud, the tall, elderly Turk whose coarse grey hair suggests a lifetime of thwuddling, is kneading away, working through the aches and pains of my shoulders and triceps like they’re pizza dough.

Like a mechanic, he’s thorough, swift and doesn’t say much. So far, I’ve been able to make out three words — syllables really — “good,” “aye” and “oosh.”

Oosh seems about right. It’s the one he uses to indicate he wants me to move or roll over. Oosh and a big fat André the Giant type slap on my back.


It may seem rugged, especially to the uninitiated, but this is how Turkey’s famous hamams, or bath houses, have worked for centuries. The tradition began under the Romans and Greeks. With indoor plumbing still centuries away, they were an important way for cities to conserve water and energy. Later, with the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans added a spiritual twist. With the Islamic emphasis on physical cleanliness as a prerequisite to spiritual purity, the hamams became beehives of activity. The one I’m visiting, the hamam designed by master Turkish architect Sinan in the 16th century, is considered a masterpiece of Ottoman architecture.

“It’s like you’re visiting another century,” Rusen Baltaci, the manager of the hamam, later explains to me. He calls this a “living museum,” comparing the experience to visiting Istanbul’s famous SophiaEND or MosqueEND.

“People have been using it for centuries. You feel the history.”

My own experience begins with keys to a private dressing room. Unlike Roman times, due to the Islamic sense of modesty, no nudity is allowed. Men and women each have separate bathing areas (though some modern hamams are now mixed), and wear loincloths at all times.

As I change into mine, hanging my clothes on a nearby hook, I realize I’ve just cast away all my earthly possessions. No wallet, no BlackBerry, just me and a tiny loincloth, which, with the smallest misstep, could expose me and my, err, Turkish delight.

The cube-shaped, three storied waiting room gives way to a smaller, tiled washing area, where I jump in for a quick shower. I come out, dripping wet, the loincloth soaked. Mesud then points to a wooden door, beyond which is the main bathing area, a twelve-sided marbled room with wash basins, taps and a giant marble slab in the middle. Small holes in the dome on the roof allow steam to escape.

The air is thick and sticky. I make a beeline for one of the basins, splashing myself with hot water to adjust to the temperature. Mesud then motions to the marble slab.


I take it to mean he wants me to lie down, so I do, becoming a human shish kebab against the heated platform. At that instant, I feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead. My stress melts away, the burning sensation putting my muscles instantly at ease. Minutes later, Mesud returns, his hand covered in some kind of scrubbing glove, somewhere between pumice rock and the steel wool you use to clean the kitchen sink.

He starts on my legs and works his way up, scraping away a tiny layer of dead skin in the process. Then comes the soap. Bubbly, bubbly soap, spread all over my body, followed by a rinse and one of the most intense massages I’ve ever had.

As I lie there, it’s easy to see why successive generations of conquerors have all tried to preserve the baths. It’s the ultimate man cave. No big screen TVs or cheerleaders. Just a room full of men, muscles, steam and a whole lot of sweat. And just when I’m ready to head back out into the real world . . .


The bliss continues.


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