Paying for Abuse: Inside a Turkish Bath
I knew Hasan and I were going to get along when he threw a bucket of water over my head. Granted, he then tried to beat me to death with his bare hands, but for this I tipped him well. After all, a certain level of physical abuse is part of the package in a Turkish Bath.
Hasan is a masseur in the Cemberlitas Hamami, one of the oldest and most famous Turkish baths – or Hamams, as they are known locally – in Istanbul. The Turks didn’t invent the steam bath: it came to them from the Romans via the Byzantines. But they do it best, and that’s why the idea bears their name the world over.
I have chosen Cemberlitas as my debut hamam because of the wonderful building in which it is housed. It’s not obvious from the road, amid jewellers and other modern stores in Istanbul’s Sultanhamet area, but once within it’s clear that this is a piece of true history: built in 1584 and commissioned by a sultan’s wife. It was designed by the incomparable architect Minar Sinan, whose signature work is the wonderful Sulaymanie Camii. And if you think I’m getting a bit heavy on the superlatives, keep in mind that Sinan’s patron went by the name of Suleyman the Magnificent; bombast was in ready supply in those days.
Author's note: no photography is permitted inside the baths, so these photos were taken elsewhere in Istanbul
There’s a strict sequence of events involved in a Turkish bath. First of all, you are sent to a room or locker to get changed. In Cermberlitas, this is called a camekan; a host of little rooms over a number of floors where you strip off, and put on a wrap called a pestemal.
Next you walk downstairs again and meet your masseur. This is where Hasan and I become acquainted: a sturdy man with an evident strength that’s obvious well before he tries to pull my head off in the name of relaxation.
Hasan then ushers me into the main area, called a sicaklik, and this is where the choice of location is everything. It’s truly a different world: an ancient dome with a cluster of holes cut in the ceiling letting the light through (but, having been glassed in, no fresh air); an intense, deeply humid heat; a central podium called a gobektasi with numerous men lying on it, some being soaped, pummelled and generally manhandled by the masseurs. There is a lot of sweat.
Turks justly hate the Alan Parker movie Midnight Express and the terrible impression it gives of Turkish culture (or Turkish jails, at the very least); it’s an awful image to give the world of a friendly and generous people. But there’s no denying, as the door slams shut behind me with a sonorous, echoing boom, that there’s a certain sweaty sense of imprisonment in that room.
Hasan explains the form: first I must lie on that podium, which turns out to be intensely heated. For a few minutes this is pleasant, warming. Then it becomes hot and sweat starts to pour off me. By 10 minutes in I can no longer stay lying down, front or back, and have to sit up. Round about now, Hasan comes back in, beckons me to the edge of the podium, and at this point chucks the first of many pink buckets of water over my head. The restorative effect is so welcome I want to give him a hug, but that doesn’t seem terribly sensible and still less hygienic.
Hasan takes to me with a scourer. “Skin!” he shouts triumphantly. He is right: it’s coming off me in such quantities I think I’ve lost weight. There are rolls of it: I’m not so much being cleaned as eroded.
Next is the massage, and Hasan regrettably proves as enthusiastically capable at this as I had imagined. I live in Singapore and am no stranger to the borderline sadism of Chinese masseurs, the wilful seeking out of the pressure points to dig an elbow into them; my wife, who loves this sort of thing, refers to her favourite masseuse as “Violent Eve”. But this is something else. There’s a lot more of Hasan than there is of the lethal Chinese woman from the Singapore malls, and he brings his bulk to bear on the task in hand. He rearranges my stomach muscles; crushes my shoulders; attempts to remove my foot. “Good!” he shouts. It’s not so much a question as a statement. “Very good!” he cheers, as my fingers cracks with such force and volume I am aware of a distinct echo off the distant domed ceiling.
Next come the soap suds, which are quite a sight in themselves, as you disappear in about a foot of bubbles. Some get into my eye. It stings. I think about mentioning it. The idea doesn’t seem to fit with the masculinity of the situation. I manfully grin and bear it. And then, flattened and soaped and scoured and rearranged, it is time to have several more buckets of water thrown over my head.
It’s not the end: there’s time still for Hasan to lead me to a different room, a sogukluk, to wash my hair and – I’d feared this – crack my neck. You don’t even need me to tell you about that. Six farewell buckets in the face and then I’m sent off to shower and get changed.
For all the heat and general abuse of the process, there’s absolutely no denying that shortly afterwards I feel like a different man. Actually for a short while I believe I am a different man as some sort of evolutionary quirk appears to have taken place: for an hour later, every time I put my sunglasses on, they spontaneously steam up. But I am rejuvenated by the process, undeniably cleaner, probably lighter and quite possibly taller.
“You like Istanbul?” Hasan had asked, timing his question for a moment when he was holding me in a headlock trying to disconnect my skull. I couldn’t answer him, on account of being unable to breathe or speak, but now I know what I think the answer should have been: I do. Now hit me with another bucket of water.