Bathing in its purest form: Istanbul’s Cagaloglu Hamam in the 19th century. It hasn’t changed much.
From the fountain in the vestibule to the ornate brass spigots that line the walls along the marble-covered interior to the heated marble platform under the steam-filled dome to the plush towels, fragrant tea, and lemon cologne afterwards, a visit to one of Istanbul’s historic hamams is a sensuous experience not easily forgotten.
Cagaloglu (pronounced “jaalóhlu”), which dates to the 18th century, along with Çemberlitaş, which dates to the 16th century and has been attributed to Sinan, are two of Istanbul’s most historic hamams. Both are popular with tourists, with Cagaloglu being slightly more expensive, though both were a bargain compared to spa visits elsewhere in the world. It is also worth noting that while the vast majority of Istanbulites now bathe in the privacy of their own homes, the historic hamams are not just for tourists. Many locals, especially athletes, appreciate the hamam experience, especially the vigorous rubdown that, for a few extra dollars, is often the most memorable part of the visit.
Istanbul also has a handful of smaller, neighborhood hamams, and while they are not as spectacular in appearance as Cagaloglu or Çemberlitaş, there are fewer tourists and they are less expensive (but, again, none of Istanbul’s hamams could be considered expensive, compared to, say, a trip to the movies in a large American city). Outside of Istanbul, one can find hamams of all sizes, both grand and diminutive. Bursa, one of Turkey’s loveliest and most historic cities, offers several hamams that are as grand as anything one could find in Istanbul. Despite its beauty, Bursa is not heavily touristed, which means that its large hamams are filled primarily with locals, including many breathtakingly beautiful young Turkish men. Moreover, many of Turkey’s smaller towns and villages still have functioning hamams. Several hours east of Istanbul by car is Safranbolu, a delightful town that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Safranbolu offers a small but beautiful hamam where visitors can enjoy the peaceful steam and get a massage for a mere fraction of what it would cost in Istanbul.
It amazes me how often I talk to people who have gone all the way to Turkey only to ignore the hamams. Perhaps, Americans have been trained to think of “bathhouses” as sordid, dirty, and inherently unsafe. Turkey’s hamams are clean, well-maintained places that are simultaneously dignified and relaxed, sensuous but not sleazy, where decorum and strict Islamic notions of modesty prevent even the slightest impropriety from disrupting the sanctity and fellowship of the steam.
For more information, visit www.hamam.com.