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Guest Viewpoints

My First Turkish Steambath

October 24, 2021
Peter Nicolelis

When you next visit Constantinople and have completed your visit to Aghia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, and have made your tour of the covered Grand Bazaar, the Topkapi Palace, and the Blue Mosque, plan your next stop for some restful decompression and relaxation.

Go to the renowned Cagaloglu Hammam – the Turkish bath house located on Yerebatan Caddesi just off Sultanahmet Square – all within easy walking distance of the incredible Aghia Sophia.

The opulent, eighteenth century, Turkish bath house at Cagaloglu has separate, identical sections for men and for women.

Public baths were originally founded by the Romans, passed on to the Byzantines, and then on to the Turks.

The spectacular Cagaloglu bath house was presented as a gift to the city of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmet in 1741. Over the many years, it has been visited and marveled at by international royalty, government ministers, dignitaries, and international celebrities.

Going to the Cagaloglu Hammam is a most unique experience and one that you will always remember.

You enter the establishment and two steps later you are greeted by a clerk who directs you to the menu board. Written on the board is the price list for admission and all the services available in the bath house. Everything is a la carte including slippers, soap, body wrap cloths, and towels.

The first charge is for general admission. This charge allows the patron entry and freedom to bathe themselves, self-service, with no time limit, and for lounging in the steam room. Other custom services include a luxury exfoliating body scrub, shampoo, hair cuts, manicure, pummeling full body massage, and use of an narguile (water pipe).

My wife Helen and I, together with her sister Stella Pappas and her cousin Yianni Costantinides from Athens, had planned this trip to Turkey to visit the birth places of each of our parents. That meant that our stops had to include visits to Tuzla, a waterfront city on the Sea of Marmara which has become a ship building center near Constantinople, and then Magnesia and Pergamos, cities near Smyrna.

We rendezvoused in Athens where we arranged to rent a van with a driver. We drove into Turkey and our first port of call was Constantinople. Our first visit was to Aghia Sophia, then the Topkapi Castle, the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. It was a whirlwind day.

Our cousin Yianni then surprised us by suggesting that now was a good time for all of us to have a hot Turkish bath to unwind, to feel refreshed and clean. Helen and Stella were not keen on the idea of going to a public steambath house, but I decided to accompany Yianni and to try something totally different – something I had never experienced.

We left Helen and Stella at our hotel and then Yianni and I went on to the Cagaloglu Hammam.

We entered the bath house, studied the menu quizzically, and wondered what in the world an exfoliating luxury body scrub and a full body massage were.

But, we decided to try them both.

We stripped off our clothing in the changing cubicles, wrapped a cloth around our bodies, put on slippers to maneuver over the hot, wet marble floors, and walked into the hararet, the large steam-relaxation room.

Stepping into the hararet was like walking into a movie stage setting for the filming of the Arabian Nights.

Yianni and I stood there speechless absorbing everything around us. We were then taken by attendants, who took our cloth body wraps and escorted us to individual marble sitting stations within the body-washing area. Once seated, bare-assed, another attendant with a soapy, coarse cotton mitten in hand began to vigorously scrub our entire bodies. Not an inch was left unscrubbed, though private parts were left for the individual patron to attend to.

At this point I felt completely limp. I found a spot on the large marble plinth where I could relax, sweat a little, and get my bearings. The domed roof over this raised marble sitting and lounging area was pierced by small, star-shaped windows. Looking up at the sunbeams piercing through the small windows was sort of an out of body, surreal experience for me.

Now I was ready for the pummeling, full-body massage. My body had never been so thoroughly bent, twisted, flexed, and stretched so briskly ever before. A street expression refers to one feeling `’loose as a goose” – that is how my body felt. I was amazed that I could even stand up and walk when the masseuse had finished with me.

However, I did realize that I needed to sit, lounge, and relax in the hararet steam room again.

I needed to feel that surreal, out of body experience again. It was that wonderfully special.

The location of the Cagaloglu Hammam. (Photo courtesy of Peter Nicolelis)

EPILOGUE

This Turkish hot-bath experience reminded me of my father’s hot baths in our Astoria apartment.

My father, who incidentally was born and raised in Asia Minor, probably had hot-baths in Turkey before his escape in 1912. He probably even had hot baths in New York. That would have happened in the twenties before he married, when he lived in a rented room in Chelsea – an area on the West Side of Midtown Manhattan, the Greek Town of his time. Later, after he married and had a family, he had a Sunday morning ritual that I remembered as I was writing about my Cagaloglou Hammam experience in Constantinople.

The incidents took place right after he had Sunday morning breakfast with the family. My father would begin by filling our bathtub with hot water – one hundred percent hot water. The bathroom got so hot that condensation would collect and drip down the enamel painted bathroom walls. Pop would enter, strip and step into the tub and would allow his body to soak in the hot water. Then, when he felt ready, he would take a soap-saturated loofah glove and scrub his entire body with it. There were occasions when Pop would call out my name and I would help by scrubbing his back as he sat on the edge of our large cast iron tub with his legs and feet soaking in the tub water.

After Pop completed his hot bath and exfoliating body scrub, he prepared for his shave. He would first apply a hot wet towel to his face and then lather up with soap from his soap mug. He shaved with a double edge, Gillette bladed hand razor.

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