Forgive me typos dear reader, am not in the swing of these tablet touchscreen keyboards. 😕
Sneaking out of the hotel bedroom in a winter pre-dawn, the only company on the streets were stray dogs and the occasional municipal worker. It was breezy with a little rain gusting in from the Bosphorous. Heading up the hill and along the dimly lit streets I presently found the hamam. It hasn’t moved since it first opened its doors in 1481.
Only its door was not open now. With a reputed start time of 07.00 I was punctual, but not pushing it at a few minutes past. By 07.20 I’m positively self conscious as passing folk suspiciously eye the bald white guy lurking on the dark .street corner. I mouth the word NO to each passing cabbie (who deserve an accolade above keen in this town). I’m also getting cold. A senior local gentleman hobbles up to me and demands “hamam?” I nod. He bustles off, around the corner and is gone. I check after him. Nope, he’s vanished. I return to my station at the door where the brass plaque clearly reads the opening hours. “07.00 every day.” Time in this town is more of a concept than a precision device.
07.30 and a light comes on from within. Same small man comes to the door and fiddles unsuccessfully with a bunch of keys. He vanishes within to be replaced by a bigger altogether more brusque chap who clearly commands a key and gruffly beckons I step inside, down some marble steps and through to an atrium. In short order I am instructed to choose from a menu and “PAY NOW.”
Relived of cash I am pointed to a cubicle and motioned to strip off.
Inside the teeny changing room is a miniscule day bed, a safe, some wooden clogs and a tea towel. Kit off it is then.
At this point dear reader I should discuss the notion of Turkish Bath, or hamam, with you. Words that spring to mind for many in our Western lives may include seedy, dodgy, dirty (not in the hygiene sense) and so on. For me, in Istanbul, it carries the memes of tradition, purge and I’m a bit knackered and could do with a back rub. There’s certainly nothing sexual about it. In India, the once magnificent Red Fort in Old Delhi has a hamam, or at least its shell. I’m clumsily trying to say it’s cool and historic and okay and not pervy.
Emerging from my cupboard resplendent in modesty hankie and flip-clogs a similarly dressed local beckons to follow him. The atrium is marble and dark (1970s) wood with a small fountain surrounded by chairs at the centre. It has a mezzanine level with more cells around the perimeter. We head though a door into a shower/torture room. He motions to a toilet.
I nod appreciatively. On to the next door.
The space is domed and old. The centrepiece is a marble topped plinth about 5M square. The edge has large marble sinks with worn brass taps gushing water. Over a dozen. It’s hot. It is very much a Turkish bath. There is no plunge pool, no ornamentation. It’s functional and has clearly seen much action. [Oh do behave, you have a gutter mind.]
Moustache man puts a vinyl pillow and tablecloth onto the plinth and slaps it. I am to lie down. Clogs away chaps… The slab is cooking hot. I blink in the heat and survey the dome above with its many mini skylights. Morning has broken out there and the room brightens little by little.
Despite my British reserve, I relax into the moment and allow my senses to take stock of the environs. (Not an easy task, forgetting yourself. I recommend Watching the English – Kate Fox – as a text on how our behaviour is so very ingrained. I am attempting to be the participant observer here and it’s difficult to keep my own bias out of it. Also, lying all but butt naked in a sweatbox with a burly local for sole company with no common language and your wife asleep back at the hotel having no clue where you are? Makes you so much more uptight and even more reservedly British, not less.)
Where was I? Ah yes, searing my cheeks on a raging hot marble slab….the only customer on this dank, cool Istanbul January Saturday.
Meanwhile, the sounds are intoxicating. The drip drip dripping of the condensation, the whooshing of the taps, the great sloshing as the attendant violently splashes down all the surfaces, then the echoes left in the ensuing silence. As I revel in the noise I note my heels and elbows – where the blubber count is least – are cooking my bones. I start to figet and the sense of relaxation quickly fades to sweaty discomfort. Not slightly due to a stinging sensation in my eyes where the detergent employed by the attendant has mingled in the atmosphere.
At this moment the attendant transforms from janitor to my, er, washer. Quick as a flash he’s lathered me up. [Come come now. Oh, wait, that’s a poor choice of chastising phrase given the circumstances.] He rearranges my loin-dishcloth and turns me over for a soapy back incident. [!] Now that I surely could not look and feel any more ridiculous he strikes first blow for what subsequently becomes a properly pummelling massage. Starting with a sharp intake of soap-sud swallowing breath I emit a plaintive “aarrruuhhh” followed in short order by a low “wh-oooof” of hells-bells-ness. This man is a bloody sadist. Christ on a bike he’s strong I think as my shoulder blades cave in and my tendons saw over the spiky bone of long ago broken collarbones.
On to my back and he’s leaning over me skin to skin. It might have been a tender moment were he not breaking my arm. Not content with the left he savages the right and then sets about my thighs. This was as subtle as having an earthmoving excavator reverse over ones pins. Slowly yet maliciously. I may have moaned, but only in the sense of “okay, you win: I’ll tell you where the invasion is planned for.”
I sit up and he’s over by a large sink indicating my presence is required. Uneasily, unsteadily, I clip clop over in comedy clogs to sit beneath him on the cool floor.
Digging deep into reserves of malice he subjects me to a splash down with alternate warm, cold, scalding pails of water. With me reeling, he starts to mix up a bowl of lather. The kind a giant might use in having an auld fashioned wet shave. Using a shaving brush-cum-loofer it’s time for another soapy beating. [There’s a sentence eh?] I have soap everywhere including up my nose and in my teeth.
He repeats the jetwashing to a degree that has me fleetingly empathise with cars in carwashes whilst simultaneously wincing for protestors put down by water cannon.
I am led through to the toilet room and wrapped in a loin cloth, have a towel draped over my shoulders and he fashions a too-tight turban with another towel. Momentarily I am sat by the atrium fountain and offered a bottle of mineral water.
Despite sweating like a pig, looking like a twat and being all but delirious no one pays a blind bit of attention to me and….and…. And despite it all, I feel GREAT.
Hamams: proudly beating the crap out of punters since 1481.