Traditional Turkish baths cleanse both body and soul — and make you feel like a Sultan (or princess), too…
Steam, scrub, soap suds and a silky massage. Ahhhh… Few bathing rituals in the world generate the decadent pleasure (and squeaky clean feeling) of a Turkish hammam experience.
In Istanbul, visiting a traditional Turkish bath is a must. One of the most opulent is the AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam. Originally built in 1556 for Roxelana, the bewitching wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, it reopened in 2008 after a three-year, multi-million-dollar restoration. It follows the classical Ottoman bath style, but men and women today each have their own sections in the white marble hammam.
In a private change room, you undress and then tie a silk-and-cotton pestemal (wrap) around your waist. You’re led to the “hot room” — a large, octagonal-shaped, marble room with a high domed ceiling, marble basins and gold taps. Clouds of steam swirl about. Seated on a marble slab, you lazily pour warm water over yourself from a gold-plated bowl as you unwind and luxuriate in the heat. An attendant next scrubs you down from head to foot with an exfoliating goatskin mitt until your skin is baby smooth. Now comes the dreamy part — from what looks like a pillowcase, your attendant squeezes huge clouds of tiny soap bubbles all over you, covering you in a comforter of fluffy softness, as you lie on warm marble. Finally you’re massaged with soapy foam.
After our two-hour hammam treatment, we felt as if we could float away — light in body and spirit. Indeed, historically, traditional Turkish hammams were a place to cleanse both body and soul. They were often found near mosques so the Muslim believer could cleanse the body before praying — not only did you sweat out toxins, you achieved spiritual purification too.
A carry-over from the Roman social bathhouse, when Istanbul (then Byzantium and Constantinople) was under Roman control, public hammams also played an important role in the social fabric of everyday life as gathering places to gossip and discuss events. Women could escape the confines of their home to mingle with other women — and even look for suitable brides for their sons. Two centuries ago, if a husband didn’t pay for his wife to visit the Turkish bath twice a week, she could ask for a divorce!
These days, you might not have to leave your hotel to enjoy a hammam. We tried a private couple’s treatment at the storied Ciragan Palace Kempinski’s spa. Towel headrests on the marble slabs, soft Turkish music and the choice of an easy, medium or hard scrub added to the comfort of our experience. Afterwards, we relaxed on a red velvet divan sipping mint tea. Definitely an indulgent ritual fit for a Sultan and his princess…
~ TRAVEL TIPS ~
Where to stay in Istanbul
Built on the banks of the Bosphorus Canal, the 5-star Ciragan Palace Kempinski has welcomed kings and queens as well as celebrities like Madonna, Oprah Winfrey and fashion designer Giorgio Armani. A gorgeous outdoor infinity pool overlooks boats plying the sparkling seaway — a treat at the end of a day of sightseeing. Most rooms have balconies with Bosphorus views. But if your wallet allows, splurge on one of the 11 suites in the 19th century Ottoman palace building. www.kempinski.com/en/istanbul/ciragan-palace
~ Istanbul’s most luxurious public hammam is the AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, located in the Old Quarter next door to the famed Hagia Sophia. www.ayasofyahamami.com
~ Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami is another recently restored and elegant public Turkish bath, located near Taksim Square. www.kilicalipasahamami.com
Bath culture and etiquette
~ Some hammams have separate hours for men and women.
~ You’ll be given flip-flops and a waist wrap (which you may leave on when bathing).
~ Don’t splash and dash. Once finished, you can stay in the hot room and relax over tea for as long as you like. Make your hammam visit a leisurely, languid one.