Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Women: what to expect at a Turkish bath

A Woman’s Guide to Turkish Baths

Previously, I wrote briefly about Jordan’s experience in the male section of the baths and mentioned an article, What To Expect When Visiting A Turkish Bath. While the article was helpful in making my decision to go for it, it was from a man’s perspective. This is my experience at Çemberlitaş Hamamıwhich I would highly recommend.

This is not for you if

  • You have a sunburn or new tan
  • You hate hot water
  • The idea of someone touching you is repulsive

First, before we move along, I loved my first experience and would gladly do it again.

Tradition

A Turkish bath, or hamam, takes place mostly in a steam room. There is a cooling off room (usually at the beginning), the steam room, and then an even hotter room you can go relax in. But not all hamami are constructed the same, so expect variation among establishments.

Women and men are strictly separated at hamami. Sometimes there are hamami for only men or only women, sometimes the hamami allows women and men in at different times of the day. Larger establishments have separate facilities for men and women. If there is a mixed hamam, it was designed with tourists in mind.

A nice thing about hamami is how long it’s open: usually from 6 a.m. to about midnight, so it’s perfect to end your day with a bath.

Local women bath naked. Like completely nude, usually. Tourists tend to wear bikini bottoms (sometimes given out at the front desk). But again, each hamam may be different.

Decide what you want

There are usually three services you can pick from:

  • Self-service (always the cheapest), which includes entrance into the bathing rooms and use of towels. At the hamam I went to, it was around 60 lira. You go in and do everything yourself. I wouldn’t suggest it for a first-timer.
  • Traditional service, which includes entrance, use of some toiletries, and 15 minutes of scrubbing by an attendant. At the hamam I went to, it cost 90 lira.
  • Luxury and other treatments, which are usually add-ons to the traditional package, such as massages, clay face-masks, pedicures and manicures, etc. Varying prices. I purchased a 30 minute oil massage on top of the traditional service.

Upon Entering

At the front desk tell them what you want. You will be given tokens for whatever services you’ve purchased (these will later be collected by attendants). My hamam also gave me disposable black bikini bottoms. If yours does not, bring dark underwear to wear into the hot rooms. You don’t want to wear wet underwear home!

I was directed to the women’s section, which was busy with both locals and tourists (my favorite combination). An attendant handed me a peştemal, a red/white checked cloth to cover up before the baths and rubber slippers. I changed behind a curtain and put my things in a locker. At this point, you should just be wearing the black bikini bottoms. You may get a private changing closet, or change in a locker room. If you like, wrap the peştemal around you like a towel.

Bathing

Once directed into the beginning chambers (whichever it is, a warm room or directly into the steam/hot room), take the towel off and lie on it. Everyone else is topless, too. Just lie on your stomach. Turkish women will be completely nude, typically.

The steam room tends to be circular, with alcoves for showers and buckets of hot water. In the center of the room is a raised stone to sit or lie on. Female attendants tend to be in bikini tops and bottoms, or just bottoms. After resting or showering for a time (and sweating!) an attendant will come to begin the scrubbing process. I began laying on my stomach, so she worked all of my back.

While the bikini bottom stays on the whole time, ladies, it is moved around quite a bit on the backside. Just be forewarned. Scrubbing gets all the dirt and dead skin off your body. I couldn’t believe how much dead skin I had on me! Neither could my attendant either, by the look on her face. She told me to turn and sit when necessary. She scrubbed all of me–if I had worn a top, she would’ve told me to take it off so she could reach everything. Then, she poured hot (really hot) water to get rid of the skin. Washing with soap comes next.

All in all, this is about 15 minutes. Depending on the hamam and service you receive, things will vary. My attendant sang and joked with a local in a nearby alcove. It was incredibly relaxing and friendly. At first I had been super self-conscious about my state of undress, but I fit in with everyone else. And something about it was nice, actually. All body types and all ages were present, and everyone was treated normally. It was comforting–the female body is something we all have and, at least in Turkish baths, accept as natural and good: nothing to be ashamed of or worried about, no scar or fat roll was odd to anyone.

When scrubbing is finished, the attendant will lead you to a faucet and pour alternating cold and hot water over you, then shampoo your hair (at least mine did). I was in heaven. I could be quiet and relax (something I desperately needed from the icy, loud streets of Istanbul) but be around a community of women enjoying themselves at the same time.

You can stay in the hot rooms as long as you like–and some people spend hours there, napping or visiting with friends. I would have gladly stayed at least an hour longer, but Jordan was waiting for me.

Leaving and Extra Services

Whenever you want, you can leave. I draped myself in my wet peştemal, but was required to leave it at the door. I had to cross the cool, resting room to get a towel. I sat on a bench for a few minutes before the masseuse found me. All the employees were very helpful in pointing the direction to go.

My masseuse was a nice old grandmother with hands like a wrestler. She had me disrobe again (but I still wore my bikini bottom) and lie on the table. To keep warm, I was usually covered with my towel. In the States, or at least the massages I’ve had before, the masseuse avoids the chest area. Not here. She just whipped that towel down and went from my shoulders to my belly button. While I was on my back she maneuvered the bikini as well. At the end, she placed some chocolate in my mouth and kissed my forehead.

When I felt ready, I wrapped back up in my towel and went to the locker room to change.

Ending

Take your time changing. Some hamami have hairdryers and an area to reapply makeup or fix hair.

On your way out, make sure to tip. I think 10 to 20% is acceptable.

 

Last tips

  • Authentic Turkish baths will only have male attendants for men and female for women
  • Consider not wearing contacts or makeup, because soap and water will get everywhere
  • You can shower whenever you please, and then wash the nether regions yourself.
  • If you have sensitive skin or allergies, consider bringing your own soap
  • Go ahead and take your top off. You’ll stand out if you don’t, and you want the full scrubbing anyway
  • If the hamam doesn’t provide underwear/bikini bottoms, bring your own for bathing (unless you want to go native!)
  • Enjoy the architecture, the steam, and the atmosphere! This is a time of relaxation, both physical and emotional.

All in all, it was heavenly and I’m so glad I spent the money to do it (153 lira–expensive but oh so worth it). And my henna tattoo stayed on!

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Have you been to a Turkish bath? What was your experience?

Categories: Culture Quirks, Practical Matters, Turkey | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul and Turkish baths

We began the day by waking up to a freezing hostel room. We flipped a coin to see who had to brew tea for the other. Jordan gallantly made tea on the other side of the room and brought it to me. Evidence below.

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We joined a walking tour (purchased with the bus tour) and went along the old Hippodrome and eventually into Hagia Sofia. The Hippodrome (which is now part of Sultanahmet square) is marked by two obelisks and the remains of a bronze snake pillar. It was the superdome of ancient Constantinople during the Byzantine empire. It was built when the town was still called Byzantium, but when Constantine moved the capital of Rome from the city Rome to Byzantium in 324 AD, he enlarged the Hippodrome. Because of its importance as a social place, it was the epicenter of many riots (sport teams, political factions, and religious arguments included). The Nika riots of 532 damaged the Hippodrome the most, as well as destroyed the Hagia Sofia (the second church on the site at that time). The main political factions at the time united during one of the games to threaten Emperor Justinian I’s claim to the throne. He thought of fleeing, but his wife Theodora (who began life as an erotic dancer around the Hippodrome and worked her way up to wool weaver, then empress) told him not to. As the riot grew, the rioters burned half of Constantinople, including the Hippodrome, Hagia Sofia, and other important buildings. Justinian eventually sent the army into the Hippodrome to quell the violence. In the end, about 30,000 people died.

Afterward, Theodora and Justinian had to rebuild the Hagia Sofia, the third and final rebuilding. That is what we saw next.

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Here’s part of the dome. The place is utterly massive and breathtakingly beautiful. All the yellow paint is actually gilded gold on the mosaics. It was the patriarchal seat of the Greek Orthodox church after the Great Schism of 1053. “Hagia Sofia” in Greek means “Holy Wisdom.” The basilica has (barely) survived several earthquakes in the first millennium and the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. Many of the missing gold mosaic pieces went into Crusaders’ pockets at that time. After that, during the Latin occupation the basilica became a Roman Catholic cathedral until 1261. The Ottomans invaded in 1453 (which is a whole, fascinating story in and of itself). Women, children, and the elderly claimed sanctuary inside the Hagia Sofia, but in the end they were killed or taken as slaves. Sultan Mehmet II (who was 21 at the time) immediately converted the building into a mosque and over time Constantinople became known as Istanbul. All mosaics of people were covered over with plaster until 1935, when it became a museum. Evidences of both the Christian and Islamic faiths are still everywhere throughout the building.

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We stumbled across Turkey’s Archeological Museum next, which cost 15 lira apiece (and they didn’t accept ISICs). We looked at lots of pottery shards. I’m not really sure why every museum has to include cases upon cases of pottery shards. The general public doesn’t get the significance. Anyway, the visit was still great because we were able to see artifacts from not just Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul but also ancient Mesopotamian civilizations.

I had been so excited to see three of the great Western civilizations in one month (Egypt, Greece, Rome), but was sad that I’d never get a chance to visit the “cradle of civilizations.” The territory lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, so basically Iraq with a little bit of Syria and Iran. Not good places for Americans to go these days. Sure, I’d seen Babylonian statues at the British museum, but that’s a good thousand years past Gilgamesh and Nineveh and Ur and such (not that I know anything about either Gilgamesh or the city of Ur). In the Bronze age (3300-1200 BC) Mesopotamia included Sumer, Babylonian, Akkadian, and Assyrians. Some of these are mentioned in the Bible. The others aren’t mentioned because they’re older.  The Sumerians invented the lyre, the wheel, and helped with cuneiform writing. They’re also the reason we use 60 minutes in an hour and 24 hours in a day. Very little is really known about the oldest parts of this ancient civilization. We use the Epic of Gilgamesh to interpret the culture rather than the other way around (unlike most literature). It is (I believe) the oldest written story we have, the earliest fragment from the Third Dynasty of Ur, or roughly 2100 BC.

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This is a peace agreement between Ramses II of Egypt (remember that big tomb in Abu Simbel?) and Hittite king Hattusili III around 1259 BC. While I still know next to nothing about Mesopotamia, the first great civilization, Jordan and I could recognize these:

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From the Ishtar gate in ancient Babylon, commissioned by Nebuchadnezzer II (the same king with Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego). A smaller replica of the whole gate is in Berlin. It was built roughly 575 BC, to give a better idea of how ancient Gilgamesh and the Sumerians were.

Afterward we went to Miniaturk, a new park with lots of model buildings. It’s really neat, but it was way too cold to spend more than 15 minutes looking at them. It cost 10 lira per person to get in, but was well worth the cost. Most models are of sites in Turkey or neighboring areas, but some include the ancient wonders of the world (Temple of Artemis and the mausoleum).

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This model is as close as we’re going to get to Cappadocia this trip. It had been a part of the plan until our flights delayed us for too long.

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Jordan posed by the city of Mardin, a very ancient town in southeastern Turkey along the Tigris.

We ended the day (after hemming and hawing over the price) at a Turkish bath. Çemberlitaş Hamam, to be precise. This is, we think, the least-expensive-yet-still-good hamam near Sultanahmet (which most tourists stay in). We also read a review of how to bathe that included specific information for this bath house (hamam) so it worked well. Jordan paid 90 lira for his traditional service, which included a peştemal (a red/white checked long, thin towel), 15 minutes of scrubbing by an attendant, and the use of towels and toiletries. I paid 153 lira for their luxury service, which included everything from the traditional service and added 30 minute oil massage at the end. Lap of luxury, indeed.

This bath is a good choice (besides its prices) because it is authentic. It’s right across the street from the Çemberlitaş tram station. This tram station is in between the stop for the Grand Bazaar and the stop for Sultanahmet. If it’s good weather, it’s probably an easy 15 minute walk from most hotels in the Sultanahmet district. It was constructed by Mimar Sinan (a famous architect) in 1584 and I believe has been in use ever since. Both tourists and locals go here, so there’s a good mix. I will give more details in my women’s guide post.

For anyone thinking of visiting a Turkish bath, What to Expect When Visiting a Turkish Bath is a helpful website that we used when deciding what to do. I absolutely adored my experience and want to do it again. Jordan also was glad he did it (I kinda forced him because he didn’t like the idea of another man washing his body).

Jordan’s six pieces of advice to men planning to do this (besides the tips in the above article):

  1. All the other men are mostly naked too. All sorts of body types. Let that comfort you. Or gross you out. Either one.
  2. Don’t freak out when your attendant (scrubber/bather person) goes pretty far north up your legs.
  3. The male attendants are pretty rough. You will feel more pummeled rather than stroked.
  4. It’s okay if you’ve never done it before. You definitely look like a first-time tourist, but it’s okay because lots of other people do too.
  5. It is a public bath, so I followed the suggested cycle of rinse, scrub, wash, then rinse again.
  6. The hot water is really freaking hot, and the cold water is really freaking cold.

My experience was a little different, and I will detail the experience in a later blog post.

Categories: Turkey | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Meeting of the East and West

We came from sunny Dubai, expecting a mild-ish winter from the ancient city of Istanbul. Turkey’s a part of the Middle East, right? Near the Mediterranean? We were met with snow and ice at midnight when we landed on the Asian side of the city. I think the cold weather took everyone by surprise, even the locals. Someone told us that it was a storm coming down from Russia. On top of that, our plan to sleep in the airport to save money was dashed by the fact that arriving passengers cannot access the lounges.

Side note: we also flew over Iraq, so that was interesting. Not Syria though, which I noted. This is about as close to Iraq as I’ll ever get as an American. Very interesting.

Jordan and I spent a tense hour calling hostels and trying to see if the ferry operated 24 hours. It didn’t. We spent around $18 on a taxi to get us to a hostel in Pendik, about 8 km from the airport (we overpaid). The hotel and breakfast was $70, including tax. Not really a part of the budget, but by then it was almost 3 a.m. and we had to sleep somewhere. When we arrived, I told the clerk (which spoke little English) that I had called 20 minutes ago asking about a room, and now we were here and wanted it.

“But there is no room,” he told me, looking very upset that we were making him work.

“I called and asked about it. You said yes,” I told him slowly but firmly, because I know even less Turkish.

“It is not free anymore,” he said.

“I called just 20 minutes ago,” I told him.

We stared each other down for a few seconds, then he said, “okay,” and turned around and pulled a key out of the room boxes. “Here is a room.”

The room was ready, clean, and the heater already going when we climbed the stairs to it.

We slept in our pajamas and jackets. I kept a scarf around my head, and we slept well. The next morning we had to get to the European side. It was snowing and windy again, probably 20 degrees F, and the front desk clerk (a nice, helpful woman now) said that the ferries were probably closed in this weather.

In case anyone needs to know how to get from the southern Asian side to Sultanahmet district without a ferry:

  • Get taxis (or walk) to Kartal station. This is the end of the pink line.
  • You can buy tickets at machines in the metro station. We purchased red, plastic tokens for 4 lira apiece, worth one trip.
  • Head toward Kadikoy.
  • Take it 14 stops to Ayrılık çeşmesi, one stop before Kadikoy
  • This is an intersection with the black line. Go upstairs to an aboveground metro train and head toward Kazlıçeşme.
  • Get off at Serkeci. This is near historic Istanbul, just south of the opening of the Golden Horn.
  • From there you can get a taxi for around $10 to a hotel in the Sultanahmet district or get on the tram (the blue line on the metro map) and go toward Bağcılar. Only go two stops, to the Sultanahmet station. If you continue two more stops to Beyazıt-Kapalıçarşı, you will reach the Grand Bazaar. A tram ticket/token will cost another 4 lira.

We checked into our hostel (another hole-in-the-wall place the taxi had a hard time finding) and immediately put our pajamas on underneath our clothes. I wore a hijab as well as a scarf under my coat, and Jordan put on two of my scarves as well. We set out to find gloves at the Grand Bazaar.

One of the oldest markets in the world still operating, it is the largest covered bazaar with 61 streets. We got lost. But that’s okay, because you’re not really exploring all the shops (silk, handmade rugs, lamps, leather, cafes, spices, and anything else you could imagine) if you can remember where you came in. 20150108_131500

The first market that morphed into the Grand Bazaar was built in 1455ish by Sultan Mehmet II, just two years after the Ottoman conquest over Constantinople. It has changed very little in appearance since the 18th century. I haggled over a scarf there (he started at 40, I started at 20, and I got it for 20 lira), we drank hot chocolate, and then went back to check out Sultanahmet square.

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The Hagia Sofia (or Aya Sofya in Turkish) is right there, across the street from the Blue Mosque and down the square from the ancient Hippodrome. The Blue Mosque as just as impressive to Jordan as the Hagia Sofia (at least from the outside).

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This is perhaps because of its six minarets. When first constructed, the six minarets caused a controversy because it had the same number as the mosque in Mecca. Usually, princes were allowed to build mosques with three minarets, and only sultans could built mosques with four. But Sultan Ahmed I went ahead and built the mosque (called blue for the blue tiles on the ceiling inside, as pictured below), from 1609-1616. He finally fixed the problem by paying for a seventh minaret in Mecca to be built.

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When we first walked through, it was the time of ezan, or the call to prayer. There are easily three mosques and the Hagia Sofia in hearing distance, and it was very loud when they all went off, a few seconds apart from one another. The prayer echoed across the square to neighboring buildings, and I almost had to cover my ears from the noise.

Jordan and I decided to purchase another bus tour to better see the city, so despite the cold (the bus wasn’t heated) we attempted to get some good photos.

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This is the entrance to the Dolmabahçe Palace, which was an administrative center for the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century.

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We crossed the Bosphorus (the strait that separates Europe from Asia) and reentered Asia. It also connects the Black Sea (up north) to the Marmara Sea (which you can see in the photo, in the distance). Scholars’ best guess for the origin of the word “Bosphorus” is an old Greek word for “cow crossing” or something similar. The legendary founder of Byzantium, named Byzas, was said to be the grandson of Zeus and a woman who had been turned into a cow. Byzantium was colonized by Greeks around 637 B.C.

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We stopped at Beylebeyi Palace, which was closed. So we huddled in the gardens until the bus came to pick us back up 30 minutes later. Beylebeyi means “lord of lords” and it was a summer palace for the Ottomans in the late 19th century.

We did very little after completing part of the tour, for it was still snowing and windy and growing dark. Jordan finally managed to buy some gloves and we found our way back to our hostel. The radiator wasn’t working and there were cracks under the doors, so we slept in our clothing, coats, and scarves to stay warm. But we are in Istanbul, so one day the memories of shivering at bus stops will fade away and all we’ll be left with is the grandness of the mosques and the sun glinting across the Marmara Sea.

Categories: Turkey | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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