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Istanbul hammams, a steamy history, by Tristan Rutherford

The Independent, 2 January 2015

We’re in a steamy antechamber in the heart of historic Istanbul. My hamamcı, Fatih, has unfolded me onto the searing göbek taşı marble slab that fills the centre of the steamroom. This is no dainty tourist massage. I’m battered flat like a wiener schnitzel. Fatih uses his elbows and forearms to exorcise the ghosts of winter from within me.

The only respite from the marble furnace is when Fatih brings me a glass of iced mineral water. When he isn’t looking, I dab some on my bum cheeks to ease the scald. I’m then lathered up like a soapsud snowman to scrub the toxins from my skin. Believe it or not, this luxury bathhouse experience offered by the Ayasofya Hamamı – just opposite Istanbul’s Aya Sofya Museum – has barely existed for a century. I’m part of a hamam revolution. And it feels hot.

Like the English pub, the future of the Turkish hamam seemed bleak until recently. An entire generation of Turks preferred showers at home. The idea of using a public bathhouse was deemed archaic. The Ayasofya Hamamı was turned into a carpet showroom before being sympathetically renovated. Glass walkways display 15th century furnaces and the original sit-in-a-row-and-crap toilets.

The hamam’s splendour becomes apparent as Fatih settles me onto a divan in the reclining room. I’m swaddled in no less than five fluffy towels. An attendant brings me tea and a silver box of Turkish delight. I sigh as the stress eases in my shoulders (that’ll be the man bag), my hips (waiting on cold benches for London buses) and calves (Tesco Metro bags). I feel like a sultan after a busy morning drinking sherbet and executing people, and I drift into an easy sleep.

The following day I ride the tram from the Aya Sofya in Sultanahmet to the historic suburb of Tophane. The five stops tease with vignettes of old Istanbul; the Orient Express terminus of Sirkeci, the sultans’ once-private gardens at Gülhane, Bosphorus ferries at Eminönü. But as the tram doors open, a Black Sea wind inundates the carriage with its icy charge. It’s like Lands End in a sou’wester and I need another steam.

Fortunately, the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı in Tophane reopened in 2013 to offer a refined reinvention of the traditional Turkish bath. Over a glass of tea, sales manager Melike Safak explains how she attracts an equal number of tourists and Turks. “The public bathhouse concept was almost forgotten as habits changed”, explains Safak. Her local clientele has been re-educated about the hamam’s health benefits, which include “removing toxins from the skin and increasing circulation”. Fun-loving Turks can also relive traditional treatments like the pre-marriage bridal bath, complete with “silver clogs, copper hamam bowls, flowers, candles, home-made fruit sherbets” and even a male minstrel who will sing to the group post-bathe.

Melike has also demystified the daunting hamam experience for foreigners by offering a short etiquette guide. Firstly, male nakedness is frowned upon. On entry to the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, visitors change into a wraparound hamam towel and stow their valuables in a private electronic locker. Secondly, like a municipal swimming bath, shouting, splashing and running are all frowned upon. The hamam experience is all about quiet contemplation, and you may relax for as long as you so please.

Once togged up, my hamamcı Ahmed meets me in the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı’s rococo reclining hall. It purveys the hip day spa style so beloved by modern Turks. Guests may sip pressed pomegranate juice pre-hamam, or leaf through Condé Nast Traveller after. In the hamam’s fiery inner sanctum, I join a family of Turkish men who lay supine like hands of a clock on the circular göbek taşı marble slab. The hamam’s dome echoes with the chant of slaps, grunts, splashes and thumps. Twilight shimmers through the star-shaped windows in the sky.

Ahmed kills the romance by pulling me to my feet then manhandling me onto a broiling marble bench. As a former employee of the tourist-centric Çemberlitaş hamam – which offers an indifferent service for the same price – he has seen it all. His scrub is searing. Apologies for the detail, but entire wealds of black dirt are brushed from my winter skin into the hamam drain. Ahmed declares that Turks and Arabs have the best approach to cleanliness. He pronounces my British body as “çok kirli”, which means “filthy”.

All is forgiven as Ahmed cascades a waterfall of soapsuds over my body. The massage is ‘harsh but fair’. Particular attention is given to my shoulders, calves and fingers. “Stress, Metro, laptop,” he grumbles. The same globalised  names for the same 21st century afflictions. After 30 minutes of massage I’m towelled off, mummified in blankets and left for dead with a glass of tea.

Paradoxically, since September 2014 wealthy Turks have been able to scrub in 21st- century style. The brand-new Raffles spa has poached hamamcı from Istanbul’s best bathhouses. “Hamam jobs tend to be hereditary,” says spa director Aslı Sakızlı, “so many of our staff carry skills directly from their mother or father”. Raffles’ vast bathing zone is also awash with contemporary accoutrements. Beside the sherbets and shelled pistachios are a detox juice bar and – wait for it – a mixed sex couples hamam. “And all are hamam products are organic, so you could literally eat them,” says Sakızlı.

My rub’n’scrub with female (female!) hamamcı Fatima was like entering a silken cocoon of Champagne bubbles and lavender steam. Like a piece of steak I’m flipped six times on the baking göbek taşı. The penetrating heat, eerie sounds and elbow pressure dismiss me from consciousness. I come to as Fatima sloshes bowl upon bowl of water over me. Winter has finally been washed away.

Sakızlı has been successful in attracting the very section of Turkish society that first eschewed the traditional bathhouse. “Once hamams were the place for matriarchs to interview potential daughters-in-law, to see if they were physically suitable for their sons,” she explains. “But now hamams are the place to escape from electronic distractions or even family pressures”. 

Kathryn Tomasetti and Tristan Rutherford are award-winning writers who file stories from across the Middle East.