Turkish Baths

A favorite pastime in Istanbul is to spend time in one of the city’s hammams, or Turkish baths, some of which are in exquisite buildings more than 500 years old. Hammams were born out of necessity—this was how people kept clean before there was home plumbing—but they also became an important part of Ottoman social life, particularly for women. Men had the coffeehouse and women the hammam as a place to gossip and relax. Now that people bathe at home, hammams have become much less central in Turkish life. There are still bathhouses dotted throughout Istanbul, but many wouldn't survive without steady tourist traffic.

Most hammams have separate facilities for men and women. Each has a camekan, a large, domed room with small cubicles where you can undress, wrap yourself in a thin cloth called a peştemal, and put on slippers or wooden sandals—all provided. Then you'll continue through a pair of increasingly hotter rooms. The first, known as the soğukluk, has showers and toilets and is used for cooling down at the end of your session. The centerpiece of the bath is the hararet, also known as the sıcaklık, a steamy, softly lit room with marble washbasins along the sides, where you can douse yourself by scooping water up from one of the basins with a copper bowl. In the middle of the room is the göbektaşı, a marble platform heated by furnaces below and usually covered with reclining bodies. This is where, if you decide to take your chances, a traditional Turkish massage will be "administered."

The masseur or masseuse (who traditionally has always been of the same gender as the person receiving the massage, although in some tourist-oriented hammams this is not the case) will first scrub you down with a rough, loofa-like sponge known as a kese. Be prepared to lose several layers of dead skin. Once you're scrubbed, the masseur will soap you up into a lather, rinse you off, and then conduct what will probably be the most vigorous massage you'll ever receive. Speak up if you want your masseuse to use a lighter hand.

After you've been worked over, you can relax (and recover) on the göbektaşı or head back to your changing cubicle, where you'll be wrapped in fresh towels and perhaps massaged a bit more, this time with soothing oils. Most cubicles have small beds where you can lie down and sip tea or juice brought by an attendant. Before you leave, it’s good etiquette to tip your masseuse.

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