A Guide to Turkish Hammam and its Rituals

Lebarbier Bagno turco

by Selma Sevkli

I spent a lot of time in hammams when I was a kid. Since my grandmother’s best friend ran the hammam (Kosklu Hamam, Kumkapi) next door, we would go there every day after breakfast at summertime. It was pretty and and peaceful. We were not going there just to take baths but also to socialize. Women would come and chat all day long as well as washing up and relaxing. I never questioned why people take baths together or why it was hot inside or why there were only women. I just took everything for granted and enjoyed myself.

Years passed and I grew up; not many locals go to hammams anymore, not as often anyway. It became almost like a special occasion for us that we do only a few times a year. I still love it and I appreciate it more. Going to a hammam with friends; having cold drinks; chatting while being washed; relaxing while hearing the echo in the hammam, and watching the light coming through little holes in the roof make the experience so unique.  It takes you away from the daily life with all its stress.

Hammams have been significant for Turkish culture for centuries as they held many social occasions. Previously, women would go to the hammam to check the single girls out and then tell their sons. Similarly, single girls would go to hammams with their mothers and hang out with their potential mother-in laws. All the women would bring traditional cuisine there to enjoy and that would serve as a test for the brides-to-be.

After the marriage was decided then it was time for the “bride hammam”.  The bride’s friends and relatives would come together with musicians and food, dance and eat in the hammam. The bride would be washed three times in the middle to purify before the wedding ceremony. It was also common to take newborn babies to the hammam after 40 days to be washed in the middle. Likewise, many people would go to the hammam when a wish was fulfilled, or when a promise was kept.

Typical setting of Turkish Bath or Hammam in Cairo

Here’s how it works:

The body and skin are cleaned and purified from toxins, the blood circulation increases, the immune system is stimulated so that the physical and mental systems are supported by the hammam. Going to hammam has its own rituals; knowing what to do saves energy and makes the experience more worthwhile. (Many hammams that tourists go to have both men’s and women’s sides open during the day and evening. Some local hammams serve women during the day and men in the evening.)

Feel free to take your own shampoo, soap, towel, etc. to the hammam. If you do not have those, they will be given to you. When you get to the hammam, you decide if you want to get a traditional Turkish bath in which someone washes you a bit harshly (kind of like a massage with a lot of foam), a “self-wash”  or some kind of ‘modern’ massage that are becoming popular in  fancy hammams. You will get your kese (a small pouch type of cloth to wash), a pestemal (traditional cotton body wrap) and soap if you like.

Then you go to the dressing room area where you take off your clothes and wrap your body with the pestemal. Now you are ready to get into the hot area which has a heated marble platform in the middle. This area is called “sicaklik” (heat) and has many “kurna”s (bathing basins) and halves (private bathing cubicles).

The first thing to do is to let your body perspire. Lay down on the hot marble and start watching light coming in from the holes of the hammam’s dome. When you get too hot (more than half an hour could be too long as it would be 35-45 degrees centigrade), you could go to one of the basins and pour some water on yourself. If you chose to be washed by a “tellak”, she/he (same sex as you) comes and tells you to lay down. He/she will give you an exfoliating scrub which at the end surprises many people by the amount of dead skin and dirt coming out of the body. It is truly purifying. After the bath another attendant will wash you by the one of the basins, including hair wash if you like.

After the washing session, you may wish to stay and relax while enjoying a cold drink as many people do. And leave whenever you want, there is no time limit in hammams. In some hammams there is a “sogukluk” section at the end where they give you the dry pestemal and you cool off. After you leave the bathing section you could still spend time in the dressing area where some people chat and have drinks. After 2-3 hours you are as good as new, clean and relaxed.

Typical setting of Turkish Bath or Hammam in Cairo

Here are a few options for hammams in Istanbul.  Note that most of the great hammams were built by the architect Sinan:

Cemberlitas Hammami: My favorite hammam in Istanbul, was built by the architect Sinan in 1584.  Dressing area is covered with 18-meter-wide domes.  ”Sicaklik” (the hot room) has a cornered formation consisting of 12 columns. There are domed cubicle spaces on the corners. These cubicle spaces have been separated by couplet-written marble separators. The marble-covered floor has been decorated with colored stones. It is one of the best, cleanest and most well-maintained Hammams of Istanbul. English-speaking staff. Discount applied to tourists with international student ID. Credit cards accepted.

Phone: 0090 212 520 18 50 / 0090 212 520 15 33
Web: www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr
E-mail: contact@cemberlitashamami.com.tr
Hours:  between 6:00 a.m and 12:00 p.m and has sections for both men and women.

Suleymaniye Hammami: Built in 1577 by Mimar Sinan. It attracts attention with its beauty and width. Mimar Sinan used to take baths in Suleymaniye Hammam often, which was very close to his house. The cubicle spaces that were used by him are still protected. The hammam was inaugurated by Sultan Suleiman (Suleiman the Magnificent). After the ceremony, Suleiman entered the hammam for bathing.

Phone: 0090 212 520 34 10

Cagaloglu Hammami: Built in 1741, the entrance has a marble door. The men’s section has a Baroque-style fountain pool, and the dressing area is spacious and bright.  Above the entrance door, there is an original inscription with a verse from the Quran. You enter through the marble door to the building (with a different style from early Ottoman hammams). The staff speaks  English. There is a restaurant-bar at the entrance of the men’s section. Reservation required for dinner. Credit cards accepted.

Phone: 0090 212 522 24 24/ 0090 212 512 85 53
Hours: For women between 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m..  For men between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.

Galatasaray Hammami: Built in 1715 in Beyoglu. In 1965, the women’s section was added to the hammam, and the renovation work led to changes in the original style. This well-maintained and beautiful Turkish bath is located in Beyoglu District. It is adjacent to the Sultan’s School Galatasaray Lice (Lycée de Galatasaray). The hammam had been used by school students for many years. A long time ago it was a hammam that locals would go to to get rid of their hangovers after drinking in Beyoglu; now it is mostly visited by tourists.

Phone: 0090 212 252 42 42
Hours: For women between 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m..  For men between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.

Buyuk Hamam (The Grand Hammam): Built by Mimar Sinan in 1533. It is located in Kasimpasa where tourists usually do not visit. This hammam has more local attendees compared to the  others. It was built in 1533 by Mimar Sinan together with the mosque that is located just next to the hammam. There are spacious and bright changing places in both the women’s and men’s sections. There is a large and modern swimming pool in the hammam. This pool is only for men and requiresan  extra fee.

Phone: 0090 212 253 42 29
Hours: For women between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. For men between 6:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m.

Cinili Hamam (the Tiled Hammam): Built in 1548 by Mimar Sinan in Üsküdar (Asian side). The hammam has maintained its original structure until today. Both men’s and women’s sections of the hammam have the same architectural style. The hammam’s entrance is spacious and there is a bright, domed changing section. The dome height of the men’s section is 18.5 meters. There is a fountain pool in this section. This pool is made of a single piece of marble and thought to be a present given by the King of Iran. There are hexagonal tiles on the doors of the cubicle spaces and there are two lines of inscriptions under each tile.

Phone: 0090 212 631 88 83
Hours: For women between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. For men between 6:30 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.

The Aga Hammami: Located on Beyoglu Istiklal Street. It was built by Yakup Aga in 1562 (with the aim of bringing revenue to the lighthouse in Anatolian Side’s Fenerbahce district). The hammam has been through a lot of renovations and lost the original structure yet it’s still beautiful. It is one of the few hammams of Istanbul that is open 24 hours. For this reason, it is a haunt for well-known persons of Istanbul’s night life.

Phone: 0090 212 249 50 27
Hours: For men 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. For women between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. (every day except Sundays)

Selma Sevkli is a cultural orientation trainer for refugees and a freelance writer living in Istanbul.  We met Selma through Couch Surfing and hosted her and a friend in Bali, Indonesia.  Besides writing, she is also inspecting, photographing and recruiting apartments for us.  As an Istanbul native and resident, she has a great eye for finding the best apartments.

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