Flying halfway around the world is a grubby business. That’s true, even when it goes flawlessly, as it did for Steve and me last Thursday and Friday. We had some tight connections (in Denver and Frankfurt), but we arrived in Turkey’s biggest city within minutes of our scheduled time. After sharing all those toilet seats in all those cramped airborne WCs, however, I always deplane feeling soiled, no matter how spiffed up I am when I start out. In this case, even though we breezed through immigration and quickly collected our bags, we had to wait for our friends Larry and Virginia, who took a separate flight from LA to join us for the first few days in Turkey. They had to get SIM cards for their phones, and then we squeezed into a taxi together and rode for about an hour to the home-exchange lodgings I had secured. By the time we figured out how to get into the building and ascended the two flights of stairs and clomped into the apartment, it was after 8 pm. Steve, Virginia, and I then walked the long block to the Carrefour market on Omar Pasha street to buy breakfast supplies along with cheese, crackers, and wine. We ate some of that, and all I could do was collapse into bed, without showering, grossness be damned. I did know, however, that the next day would bring an extraordinary experience in hygiene.
Virginia and I had made an appointment at one of the most distinguished bath houses in the world, the Hurrem Sultan Hammam. The “hammam,” I have learned, has been a fixture of life in this part of the world for millennia, dating back to the days when Istanbul, then known as Byzantium, was the eastern anchor of the Roman empire. Those Romans loved their communal baths, and apparently contemporary Turks still have a fondness for them.
Virginia’s and my bathhouse was extra special for a couple reasons. The Hurrem Sultan hammam is located in the ancient heart of the city, literally next to Hagia Sophia, that stunning basilica-turned-mosque-and-museum. Just the experience of getting to there from our flat in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of the city, was pretty jaw-dropping. Saturday morning we caught a taxi and rode for about 15 minutes to the Bosporus — the strait separating Europe from Asia and connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea.
The city of Istanbul has straddled the Bosporus since a couple of hundred years before Christ. The ferry ride from Kadikoy to the European side only takes about 20 minutes, but for me time seemed to stop as I drank in the iconic skyline.
We disembarked and strolled across the Galata Bridge, filled with fishermen and Istanbul residents, human and feline, sauntering over the Golden Horn inlet.
We detoured through the structure known as the Spice Bazaar (aka the Egyptian Bazaar). It’s amazing we didn’t get trapped there and miss our appointment altogether, considering how beautiful the building is, and how enticing the merchandise crammed into it.But we pressed on and eventually reached Sultanahmet Square, the beautiful plaza that once was the site of the Roman emperors’ palace and today is flanked by two of the world’s most spectacular religious structures (Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.) We grabbed a casual lunch, then Virginia and I checked in for our cleaning extravaganza.
Yet another reason the Hurrem Sultan Hammam is so special is because it’s almost 500 years old and was designed by the greatest-ever Ottoman architect and paid for by one of the most interesting women in history (just my opinion). Roxolana was Ukrainian, the daughter of an Orthodox priest from Poland. Somehow at 15 she got kidnapped by raiders and was bought by a slave trader, sent to Constantinople, taken to the Askaray district, stripped naked and put on sale with all the other captured virgins. She caught the eye of the chief advisor of the sultan — the one who eventually became known as Suleiman the Magnificent. The advisor bought her as a gift for his boss — an addition to Suleiman’s enormous harem, where with luck Roxolana might get his attentions for one single night. Instead the sultan wound up breaking all the rules not only by falling madly in love with her but then, more outrageously, marrying her and making her one of the most powerful people on earth. The bathhouse she commissioned over the centuries fell into ruin, but it was restored in 2011. Here you see Virginia and me about to enter it and check in for our appointment.
I think many elements of what we experienced over the ensuing two hours and 20 minutes are standard features of a Turkish bath, as it has long been carried out in this part of the world. But I can’t imagine it being done in a more sumptuous manner. We had signed up for The Works, and the process started with our being led to beautiful wood-paneled dressing roomswhere we shed all our clothes and donned tiny string thongs, shower slippers, and bathrobes. We each had our own personal attendant who led us to an inner sanctum under a graceful, light-filled dome. Directly under it was a six- or eight-sided marble platform. I can’t be specific in part because I couldn’t take a camera or notebook into that hot, steamy enclave filled with naked women of all ages, sizes, shapes, and colors. Even the attendants wear nothing but towels wrapped around them and tucked in over their breasts and at their upper thighs.
White marble alcoves surrounded the central area. We entered one of them, shed our robes, and took a seat as our attendants dipped copper bowls into fountains fed with streams of hot and cold water. They poured the warm mixture over us, bowl after bowlful, then told us to sit for a while (to let our pores open up, I think.) Then the cleaning ladies returned and began scrubbing each of us — hard! — with mitts that felt like they were made of Scotch Brite. Looking down at my arm, I noticed little brown bits appearing on it, and for a second, I wondered if it was some kind of soap coming from the mitt. Then I realized it was my own skin, being stripped off. I almost fell off my marble bench, laughing, at the look on the face of Virginia, sitting directly across from me and gazing down at her own flesh being scrubbed away. She was clearly horrified.
Also fantastical was the sight in the center of the room, where attendants were laboring over naked women stretched out — face up and face down — on the platform. The attendants were wafting great clouds of bubbles onto the women, then stroking and massaging the flesh under the pillowy white blobs. After our attendants coated almost every inch of us with a mud paste, allowed it to soak in for about 10 minutes, then washed it all off, Virginia and I were led to the bubble platform and instructed to lay face down on it. I lack the power to adequately describe the exquisite pleasure of the mass of bubbles landing on my hot, clean, wet, naked skin, sliding over it, lubricating the massage.
We got lots of helpings of the bubbles and a long and thorough massage. I was drifting to sleep when my cleaning lady poked me and got me to my feet. She led me (and Virginia’s attendant guided her) to a wooden alcove on the first floor, where they served us an icy fruit drink and morsels of Turkish Delight. The final step was to be taken after a while to a private massage room on the top-most floor for yet another massage, this one fueled by oils and a lot of muscle power.
When I emerged, blinking, into the sunshine, I felt dazed. I think Steve and Virginia and I must have chatted on the journey back to Kadikoy, but don’t remember being able to speak.
For at least the next two days, Steve kept exclaiming over how soft my skin felt every time he made contact with it. Not that there was much of that. We were too busy trying to squeeze in more sightseeing and shopping in the Grand Bazaar (which makes the Egyptian Market look a bit like a strip mall, compared to the Mall of America).
We also spent some time exploring Kadikoy, which turned out to be a wonderful home base. First settled by the Greeks almost 3000 years ago, it’s the oldest part of greater Istanbul. Today it’s a bustling, densely populated district filled with beautiful parks, great restaurants, and a shopping thoroughfare that kept reminding me of some of the grander boulevards in Paris.
I felt really sorry we didn’t have more time in Kadikoy; I’m sure we won’t get back there when we return to Istanbul two weeks from today. Between now and then we’re traveling to other amazing places in Turkey. When we do return to the Bosporus, we’ll stay in the heart of the old city where Steve and I have long lists of other things we want to see and do. Still I’ll have to restrain myself from going back for another helping of bathhouse pleasure.