Turkey’s hamams are found all over the country. Not only are they relaxing places to enjoy a bit of rest and relaxation, they’re also an intriguing glance into Turkish life at its most intimate.
In the past, hamam were considered not only places to get clean and ease aching muscles in piping hot water, but a central part of the social scene. News and gossip was exchanged, bridal parties were held, and mothers checked out potential brides for their sons. For the men, hamams were a place to exchange political news on neutral ground. Men and women have separate bathing areas, and never the twain shall meet. Once upon a time, a man found in the women’s area would have been put to death. These days, any wandering men will merely be firmly led back to the appropriate section.
Most Turkish baths have the same layout, and while sexes are strictly segregated, the process is the same for everyone. First, you’ll enter the camekan, a multi-storey atrium with a central fountain. There are changing rooms here where you’ll leave your belongings. You’ll be given a pestemal, the regulation towel, and clogs or slippers. From there, you enter a warmer antechamber in preparation for entering the much hotter sicaklik.
The sicaklik, (‘hot room’) is the most important and also the most beautiful part of the hamam. Your eyes are drawn to the ceiling to appreciate the tiny skylights etched into the central dome. At ground level, a gobektasi; (‘navel stone) dominates the room. This large, octagonal heated platform is made of marble, and hamam guests can lie on it and enjoy (or endure) a vigorous exfoliation or massage by an attendant. Or you can just lie down and enjoy the steamy air.
These days, a great many baths offer modern skin and body treatments alongside the more traditional ones. These are carried out in small alcoves along the sides of the sicaklik.
Hamam do's and don'ts
|Shower before a treatment. It loosens pores and helps the body to detox. ||Shower or steam after a treatment. You'll undo the benefit of the treatment already applied.|
|Speak quietly. People come to a Hamam to relax and for some peace. ||Shave before a facial as it will make skin sensitive. Don't shave your legs before body exfoliation either.|
|Check whether children are welcome at your chosen Hamam. Some have an age limit.||Book a massage without consulting your doctor if you have uncontrolled blood pressure or are in early stages of a pregnancy.|
|Take your time getting up after your treatment is finished. Sometimes people will feel dizzy from standing up too quickly.||Eat heavy meals before a massage or you could risk an upset stomach or gas. |
Turkey’s most famous hamams
There are many hamams in Istanbul but the most famous of all is the 330-year-old Cemberlitas. Built by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, the hamam retains the authentic touches that still impress visitors today - and attract a loyal following as well as the odd Hollywood camera crew. The hamam is still heated in the traditional way: by a huge furnace that produces enough steam to heat the entire building. You can get traditional massage and exfoliation along with modern body treatments.
2. Cagaloglu Hamami
Unlike other big Istanbul hamams, Cagaloglu has never been restored. Since the hamam was built in 1741, this means that you’re able to see a truly traditional structure, a remnant of the Ottoman heyday. Cagaloglu offers traditional Turkish treatments, and a few rather opulent ones, such as the Sultan Mahmut I package which sees lucky guests being massaged by two attendants.
This gorgeous bathhouse which dates back to the fourteenth century has been lovingly restored for use as a modern hamam. Located in the heart of the old town, it’s steeped in the history of this fascinating town. The building started its life as an Augustinian church, before being turned into a mosque by Mustapha Pasha, who believe a prophet once visited the spot. Unfortunately Omerye is currently closed for renovations, but it’s certainly one to put on your ‘to see’ list.
4. Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan
Like Cemberlitas, this hamam was also designed by famed architect Mimar Sinan, in the sixteenth century. Built at the request of Sultan Suleiman’s wife Roxelana, the structure stands on the very spot where the ancient public baths of Zeuxippus once stood around a thousand years ago. This is another hamam with a fascinating history: in 1910 the hamam was closed for many years, before being used to house the convicts who overflowed from the nearby prison. It was restored in the 1950s before becoming a carpet bazaar until 2007, when it was restored to its original hamam state.
This bathhouse was built at the end of the Ottoman reign, a symbol of a fading regime. The hamam was originally opened to the public in 1741 to raise funds for the library of Sultan Mahmud I, and was designed by one of the most famous architects of the era, Suleyman Aga. It’s believed that King Edward VIII, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Florence Nightingale have all visited the hamam, along with many of the city’s royalty. Visitors can enjoy the incredible soaring dome, traditional fittings and of course, a traditional Turkish massage and exfoliation alongside the more modern treatments available. There is also a bar onsite, as well as a space for barbecues.
6. Bursa Kervansaray Termal Otel Hamam
This hamam is found in the north-western city of Bursa and is absolutely steeped in sheer luxury. There’s an indoor, thermal-heated pool, jacuzzi and fitness room. The water is reportedly full of minerals and has a number of health benefits. Heated to 44 degrees celsius, this is the perfect place to soak away those aches and pains.
7. Suleymaniye Hamam
It’s rumoured that soaking in the waters at this historic Istanbul hamam can cure Hepatitis A. It’s doubtful as to whether this is the case, but nevertheless, this hamam attracts visitors by the thousand - visitors who are more preoccupied by its luxury and premium treatments than by incurable diseases.
Suleymaniye Hamam is the only bath in Istanbul where women and men can bathe together. The building dates back to 1557, so it’s a wonderful place to soak in a bit of history along with the warm water.
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