Out of all the little pleasures and treats that Istanbul has to offer, one of my personal favourites is a visit to a hamam. After finishing my last job, I needed to cleanse my mental palate before starting at the new place and what better way to clear your mind than by going through a ritual of purifying your body?
The Turkish bathhouses, or hamams, are gender-segregated buildings, usually next to a mosque,where members of the public come for a deep cleanse and relaxation. I had visited this local equivalent of a spa for the first time a few years ago and it has become a must-have experience while in Istanbul. So when my friend Ayşegül asked me what I wanted to do during my short visit to Turkey, I exclaimed without hesitation : Let’s go to a hamam!
Around midday we arrived at Çinili Hamam in Üsküdar district, on the Asian coast of Istanbul. We entered through a conspicuous looking door on the side of an old building. Dating back to 1640, Çinili Hamam has maintained a lot of its historical charm till today.
Upon arrival at a square hall covered in blue tiles which gave the place its name ( “Çinili” is a special type of blue porcelain used in the decoration of royal buildings ), we climbed a spiral staircase which took us to the changing rooms. We opened the rickety yellow wooden door to our cabin, undressed and walked downstairs wrapped in thin material of pestemal, a special towel used in hamams.
Equipped with bars of natural herbal soap, kessa glove for body’s exfoliation and hamam bowls, we passed through the arabesque shaped entrance into the main area of the hamam. Sicaklik,known also as haratet, was a large marble room with soft natural light coming through the tiny eyelets in the dome of the ceiling. The warm air was full of steam and filled with the sound of splashing water and a delicate hint of soapy cleanliness.
We entered one of the smaller naves and sat down on the side of a marble basin. Dipping the shallow bowls into the hot and cold streams coming from the taps, we let the warm water wash the outside world off of us. With every drop I was beginning to feel lighter, as if by purifying my body I was removing the weight of my previous life. The quiet atmosphere helped to relax the mind while the pleasant heat of the room put our tired frames at ease. I looked around. In the neighbouring niches, women of all shapes and sizes soaked in the serene atmosphere of this almost mystical place. It was a woman’s world, a place where we could be ourselves, without shame or anyone’s judgement. There was something refreshing about being surrounded by this pure female energy. I hadn’t realised it before, but due to stress and general busyness, I have neglected that part of my psyche in the recent months, I have traded connections and rituals for time-management and project deadlines and my soul was yearning to get its spirituality back.
Once the cold bitterness of the winter gave place to the comforting heat of the steam and the skin softened under the gentle caresses of water, it was time to move onto the Göbek tasi (marble stone raised in the centre of the hamam). Lying on the warm stone I enjoyed the pleasant heat slowly spreading through my body while waiting for the masseuse. Natir thoroughly washed my body with the water and soap, scrubbing vigorously every inch of my body, leaving me feeling relaxed and renewed. It was as if with every stroke of the kessa glove, she was rubbing off a part of my old life.
Leaving the Hamam, I felt restored and reborn. As we drove back by the peaceful banks of Bosphorus I reflected on the importance of rituals in our life. How important it is to give ourselves a little treat, time to renew physically and mentally, to slow down and just be present, listen to what the body tries to tell us. In the chaos of my everyday life, I forgot about myself. I put everyone’s needs ahead of mine, prioritising work over my well-being. With the new job however, I was determined not to fall into this trap again. It was a truly new beginning and a chance to do things differently this time around.
A visit to hamam was a rare treat for me, something associated with significant life transitions, yet to my friend, it was part of everyday life, an element of her cultural landscape. Perhaps it was time for me to create space for rituals in my life, to make time for myself and get in touch with my body and soul? I promised myself to make every day special by slowing down and allowing some me-time, to look after myself and recreate that wonderful hamam feeling each day. For life is what’s happening now, not some day next week or next month and it deserves to be celebrated today and every single day.