Visiting the modern Hamman in Ankara and Istanbul
©1997 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
Water of winter, heat of summer, sweetness of autumn, and smile
-Islamic poet, 18th century
The Cagaloglu hammam in Istanbul.
Photo copyright by Mikkel Aaland
Ankara surprised me. I had dreamed of this ancient Turkish city,
its spired mosques, fragrant bazaars and the opportunity to loll
in its hamman, Islamic descendent of early Greek and Roman baths.
I wasn't prepared for a modern, fast-paced city with high-rise
apartments, gleaming government buildings and snarled traffic
rising from the flat expanse of the Anatolian Plateau.
The afternoon I arrived, a gentleman from the Finnish Embassy
invited me to bathe with him at his diplomatic club. Expecting
a hamman, I was startled to find an excellent Finnish sauna. There,
on a gleaming cedar bench, we fell into conversation with a Russian
and a Turk.
"Ah," lamented the Russian, "there are so many magnificent steam
baths in Moscow. Yes, and the birch switches, the camaraderie
of scrubbing-- and the vodka!"
"This sauna is nice enough," said the Turk, "but the hamman is
softer and soothing--not nearly as intense as the sauna."
The Finn simply smiled; he knew whose sauna we were using. Had
a Japanese, Mexican or American lndian appeared then, I'm sure
the discussion of baths would have carried far into the night.
The next day I endured a harrowing bus ride to Istanbul on a two-lane
highway lined with the corpses of burned-out buses.
When I reached Istanbul my wracked nerves begged for the soft
relaxing heat of a hamman. I checked into a cheap tourist hotel
near the famous Blue Mosque. I recruited four Swedish lads in
the lobby who appeared in need of a bath and we set out in search
of a hamman.
We strode into the dense heart of the city, past dusty bazaars
filled with rugs, water pipes, exotic clothes; past kebab shops
and small houses, each blasting out piercing Eastern music from
transistor radios. We finally came to a small sign marking the
oldest existing bath in Istanbul, the Cagaloglu Hammam, over 400
years old. The facade was modest except for the door, painted
in bright traditional designs. We pushed through arched portals
into a smothering tranquility. We stood under a high domed roof
beside a murmuring fountain that bubbled up from a tiled basin.
As the door closed behind us, the din of the city was silenced.
We were neophytes in a spacious sanctuary.
"This is the real thing," I whispered. "Look at the walls, the
pillars, the arcs and arches. All this for a bath . . ."
"It seems like a monastery," one Swede said.
"That's it," I replied, remembering my research. "It's a kind
of religious place. Architecture is the most important expression
of Islamic art. They reject images or figures of living things.
You see, they believe Allah is the sole author of life and anybody
who tries to create a likeness of a living being is seeking to
rival Allah, or beat him at his own game. So they concentrate
on architecture. They enclosed space with elaborate and elegant
structures out of reverence to Allah. Since physical purification
is half of the Moslem faith, this is a very special place."
An impassive tellak (attendant) led us to dressing rooms on the
perimeter of a round ceramic vestibule. (Impassive, perhaps, at
first glance, I knew the tellak's assignment in the hammam was
more than an usher. He is also the bouncer. Should anyone "act
indecent" or display his private parts, he would be ejected.)
We took off our clothes and the tellak laid towels over our heads,
shoulders, and wrapped our waists. Then we slipped our feet into
wooden clogs, known as malma in Turkish, or lob cob in Arabic.
The tellak beckoned us down a short passageway, through a set
of swinging doors, and into the steam room (harara) where we shed
all but the waist towels, deferring to the Islamic rule against
nude bathing. Seemingly out of character, the tellak let out a
prodigious shout that made me jump, even though I was expecting
it. His shouts were to purge the room of dijans, phantoms traditionally
believed to dwell in clouds of steam. As the reverberations subsided,
I felt like a phantom myself as the five of us penetrated this
stifling, steamy world where frail rays of light struggled to
reach the stone floor.
We entered the first stage of the five-step progression through
the hammam. First is the seasoning of the body with heat; second
is the vigorous massage; third is the peeling off of the outer
layer of skin, and removal of body hairs; fourth, the soaping,
and fifth, relaxation.
Our ttellak instructed us to lie on the massive octagonal marble
slab that rose one meter above the floor. The slab was even hotter
than the air and we immediately broke into a profuse sweat. As
our limbs became soft and rubbery, we were ready for a Turkish
The tellak had helpers. Three others, muscles rippling, joined
him to loom over the Swedes. They began pulling, twisting, kneading
and pummeling them like lumps of dough. One tellak seemed determined
to see how many different pretzel shapes he could make out of
the skinny Swede--I nearly bolted from the place.
Some minutes later, with a last twist of ears and jerk of necks,
the big Turks stepped down from the marble platform, leaving the
Swedes limp on their stomachs. Except for a glow of sublime peace
on their faces, each seemed lifeless.
I tried to relax. A large pair of calloused hands began to work
on me. At the first touch I recognized expertise. Reassured, I
The tellaks'' style and control were remarkable--powerful, relentless,
yet agreeable. With joints cracking and muscles stretching, he
pushed and urged the tips of my toes to touch the back of my neck,
just to the point of excruciating pain, and then a quick release,
triggering a flood of electric tingles down my spine, cancelling
my urge to scream. A surging pleasure rushed in where the pain
I am told that over the centuries no one has ever been maimed
by this violent massage; but I'm sure that if my body hadn't been
steam heated, a bone would have snapped, a muscle ripped, or a
joint displaced. When the massage ended, I felt drained, as though
I had endured a demanding workout-- no wonder some consider the
Islamic massage a substitute for the sport and exercise of the
For innocent visitors and most Moslems, the next step in the hamman
procedure is tozu (depilation). Tozu is the process of removing
axillary (armpit) and pubic hair. After a brief rest that allows
you to catch your breath, a bather retreats into a solitary nook,
a halvet, to attend to the depilatory process in private. It is
an ancient tradition in the hot eastern countries and is an important
hygienic measure. The reason being, despite thorough bathing,
it is difficult to remain odor free and, at the same time, protect
skin from irritation in a hot climate unless body hair is removed.
Depilatory powder or razor blades are sold from kiosks either
just outside or inside every hammam. While the powder no longer
contains harsh agents like sulphurous arsenic, it removes body
hair in a few minutes after it is mixed with water to form a paste
I never met a foreigner in Istanbul who underwent the process,
but a few weeks later, in Bursa, it was a different story. Islamic
faith prohibits men and women from bathing together. Either there
are separate baths or men and women take turns in the same hammam.
When the bath has been appropriated by women, a napkin, or a piece
of drapery hung over the entrance gives notice. Because hammams
are not coed, I had no way of knowing whether women's bathing
differed from men's. So, in Bursa, I met two French women, willing
to dedicate a couple of hours to my sweat-bath research. I bathed
with their men friends while they "researched" the female hammam.
Afterwards, we met outside. They gave me strange looks.
"How was it?" I asked.
"It was as you described, but . . . " she looked at her friend.
"You didn't tell us about this!" She lifted her arm. "And you
didn't tell us about this!" She used both hands to point down
toward her private parts.
Now back with the four Swedes in Istanbul. After the massage,
we sat still for a while, slowly recovering. Finally we slipped
on our clogs and clunked over to the marble basins ringing the
circular harara. The tellak donned a coarse camel's hair glove,
doused me with water from a tas (large cup), and rubbed down my
back with long sweeps from my shoulders to my waist. Days' accumulation
of dead skin and dirt curled into the hairs of the glove, making
a grimy ball about the size of a fist. The Swedes, proud of the
Mediterranean tan, were dismayed to see most of it disappear into
the glove. My entire body was then soaped and rinsed by pouring
a basinful of water over my head, one tas at a time.
After changing my wet linens, while the tellak held a decorous
towel in front of me, we retired to the cooling maslak (the resting
room) where large propeller fans slowly cooled us. We sagged deep
into soft couches and let our blood cool, pores close, and skin
crispness return. We were offered our choice of tea, coffee or
a soft drink, and were invited to join a group of Turkish men
around a small fountain. As we passed pipes of tobacco from hand
to hand, they would smile at us and chuckle.
We paid 35 Turkish lire (about $3.50) for the entire experience.
This was cheap for Istanbul, but expensive for the countryside
hammams I visited later. Usually 10 lire (about $1.00) covered
the expense. Back on the streets, the noisy, dusty, everyday world
seemed strange after the halcyon atmosphere of the hammam.
I spent a few weeks in Istanbul, visiting other hammams, and interviewing
professors, doctors, and hammam experts of all kinds, then headed
south in search of more. Bursa was my first stop, only a day's
boat and bus ride away from Istanbul. Bursa is a beautiful town
nestled in at the base of a high mountain range. Hammams were
everywhere, almost on every corner--the norm for most Islamic
cities. I was happy also to find an abundance of hot springs and
several thermal baths in the area. Building baths over hot springs
was a trick the Romans taught residents of the Anatolia Peninsula,
and the Turks still use the idea.
From Bursa to Izmir, to Kusadasi, to the ruins of Roman baths
at Pamukkale, to Burdur, Antalya, Mersin and then back to Tasuou.
All told, I visited forty-four hammams and, except for architectual
variations, the relaxing warmth, expert tellaks, and bather's
smiles were virtually the same. However, I did receive some suspicious
stares the few times I walked into the harara, fully clad with
cameras dangling from my shoulders. But that was to be expected.
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