Naked, Wet, and Being Rubbed Down
My scrubber was Ali, and he hummed to me as he worked the coarse wash cloth over my soapy skin. I wondered if he hummed to all of his clients, or if I was special. Maybe he was humming because I’d told him I’m American, and the tourism-driven world knows that Americans tip. Or, he liked to hum while he scrubbed dead skin off foreigners. I was seated quite nakedly (albeit with a wet towel draped over my crotch) on a gray marble bench against the walls of the oldest bath house, or hamami, in Istanbul. This particular bath house is called Cagalaglu Hamami, and dozens of banners and pamphlets inside the lobby remind you it was listed in the tourism-grail 1000 Places to See Before You Die.
A Packaged Experience
It’s also the most tourist-accessible: the young guy who greets guests in the lobby speaks impeccable English without a British accent. He gave us the list of services and their prices (in euros). Somewhat embarrassedly, he explained the matter of the washcloth. He understands that some westerners don’t feel comfortable being scrubbed with (clean) common-use cloths, so the hamami offers personal ones to purchase. He showed me to my changing room, handed me a stack of towels, and pointed Ali out to me – Ali would take over after I was done changing.Door closed with a click, I declothed and wrapped myself in the towel, and slipped on the pair of wooden sandals that were next to the door. Having never walked on such shoes before, I wasn’t optimistic about my ability to stay upright in them. Happily, I managed not to eat it as I closed and locked the changing room door behind me. This was when Ali asked me if I was American. “Yes? Excellent, we love Americans!” he said as he threw an arm around my shoulder and led me into the actual bath house. At the moment, I didn’t make anything of this comment – I was very inside my own head, dealing with the facts that I was wearing nothing but a towel, being led by a large Turkish man wearing a black track suit with lime green stripes into a room where he was about to scrub me, vigorously, wearing shoes that had to have been designed for the entertainment of the hamami workers.
Behind the lobby was the actual bath house, a large room heated to about ninety degrees. Like most of the other tourist attractions in Istanbul that are older than the United States, it was designed to make you go, “Ohhh…” A fifty foot dome covers a marble room dominated by a large marble slab. Faucets tinkle water into basins around the perimeter. It’s late, so only a few of the basins are being used. I wobbled my way into the sauna.
The idea behind a hamami is to get really, really clean. In order to accomplish this to the utmost degree, you sit in a sauna for about fifteen minutes so your pores open up and push out all the crap they’ve soaked up since your last good sweat. So, I found an un-occupied portion of marble bench, sat down (keeping my knees together, unlike the tanned gentleman who took a seat directly across from me), and for the first time in my life focused on the act of sweating. Once my legs were running with rivulets of impurity-laden sweat and my lungs felt heavy with the heat, I decided it was time to get Ali. After the oppressive heat of the sauna, the less-heated bath house felt like a New England autumn.
Ali’s track suit was gone, replaced by a red towel with gold embroidering that didn’t quite match his ruffly black chest, stomach, and arm hair. He led me to one of the basins, walking on his wood-block sandals as if they were a pair of Rainbow flip-flops. We reached a basin. He extended a hand. “Take off your towel.” Without any other real options, I gave it him – I was now wearing nothing but the damn sandals. “Sit,” he beckoned. Ass, meet three hundred year-old marble. Three hundred year-old marble, meet my ass. Ali handed my towel back to me so I could attempt modesty. I draped it over my junk, and he turned on the water in the basin.
A Magical Soap Does Magical Things to My Head
He used a metal bowl to dump warm water over my head. Then he rubbed my head with magical lilac shampoo and I ceased to care about my nakedness, the sandals, or anybody’s body hair. I, like a lot of other guys, can attain a total state of zen when somebody is scratching or massaging my head (girls: the next time you get fake nails, make a guy’s day and scratch his head for five minutes – it’s good karma). So when Ali’s hands splashed a cup of lilac-scented shampoo over my hair and face, my soul shivered in happiness. He rubbed my head, my neck, squished my face with the stuff. It got in my nose, I breathed it out, and it got in my nose again. It was marvelous.
He doused me with more water and soaped me down. With a bar of fragrant soap (five euros in the gift shop) he rubbed my body, except for a modest triangle around my crotch, until it was pink. Then he scrubbed, which was when he began to hum. By this point I was as comfortable being naked with another man as I’ll probably ever be, and his humming felt natural. The skin and dirt came off in brown rolls that reminded me of a paragraph’s worth of eraser debris – off my arms, my stomach, my legs, and most certainly my back, even though I didn’t see it. My skin was two shades fairer afterwards.
Ali rinsed me again, then told me I could stay at the basin, take a shower, or go sit in the sauna again. When I was done he’d meet me immediately outside. As he clacked away, I turned the faucet to cold and doused myself in cool water. My muscles melted into the marble.
I wobbled my way back to the Towel Room, and Ali expertly wrapped my torso and head in two towels. As I walked back to the changing room, I was offered beer, wine, soda, snacks. I asked for a bottle of water, got it, then sat in my room basking in the marvelousness. I dressed and exited the room – Ali was waiting for me. Whipping out my best Turkish, I thanked him shook his hand, and turned to leave. He was clearly expecting more than a handshake, but unbeknownst to him I’d spent two months living in Spain before visiting Istanbul, where I’d lost the American habit of tipping.
Plus, the hour or so I’d spent in the hamami wasn’t cheap. It was about thirty euros, and I’d foregone the fifteen minute massage that would have added another ten euros to the total. I did buy two of those bars of soap, though.
A 1500-Year Old Playground
The walls that the Romans constructed around Constantine in the 5th century are mostly still standing. They would be a protected monument in many countries, but in Istanbul (different name, same city) there’re so many other things to see that the walls are just sort of left lying around. One stretch has been turned into a museum, but you can climb around most of the rest of the fortifications. What used to be the moat is now a fully functioning farm, and some of the dark corners of the old fortifications now hide nothing more than piles of trash.
Parts of the walls have been restored, but some of the original stonework is still visible. These are the same stones – the same structures – from which Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans in turn defended the city. The old gates, originally built for ox-drawn carts and legions of Roman soldiers, are now serious traffic bottlenecks. At one gate, two streets merge to one thin lane, and opposing traffic must wait for its turn to filter through at a stoplight. The original architects never would have imagined a delivery truck emblazoned with a Sütaş logo shouldering aside a handful of taksis (take a wild guess), then squeezing through their arch with inches of clearance.
A Different World Only 20 Minutes Away
Along the inside of the walls, towards the center of the peninsula, is Fatih (faht-ih). Fatih is the most conservative neighborhood of Istanbul: not many tourists, most of the women wear hijabs, and the noisy bustle of Istanbul is noticeably absent from the quiet, peaceful streets here. Soccer games bounce off cinder block walls and an occasional wood-frame building leans anciently over the street. However, the city’s modern hum resumes not twenty minutes walking distance towards the Golden Horn or Taksim.
The walls stretch along the dotted line – more or less – from Haliç Bridge to Yedikul Fortress, enclosing essentially all of the old part of the city. The star marks Sultanahmet, the most touristy area. The Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cisterns, and more are all in that area.