Hurrem Sultan in Turkish history
“Come, come.” The woman gently takes my arm and steers me into the large round room. “Come” is the only word she knows in English, which makes her one word up on me, as I don’t speak a word of Turkish. But perhaps it’s just as well we can’t have a conversation, as I’m completely unclothed in a room with several other women, and no one is making much small talk. Each of us has our own attendant, each of them gesturing for us to sit here, move there, lie this way, and stand here, while she variously pours water over us, exfoliates us, soaps us, covers us with clay masks, scrubs us, shampoos our hair, and generally makes us about as clean as it is possible for a human being to be.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Traveling and touring all day is exhausting. This is rejuvenating.
- This is an opportunity to have a traditional centuries-old experience in an authentic setting.
- Good for: Travelers in search of exotic experiences. And anyone who needs a bath after a long day of touring.
I am in the AyaSofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami (hamam means a Turkish bath) in Istanbul at the end of three days of traipsing through and around museums, monuments, and mosques. I have saved this treat for the last part of my last day, and as I lean back, luxuriating, it occurs to me that there may have been a few perks in the life of a concubine.
The Turkish bath is a ritual as old as time in this ancient part of the world. The bathhouse in which I am sitting was built in 1566 — on the site of an even older public bath complex that dates to the first or second century A.D. Before that, Zeus was workshipped here. We’re talking old.
The choreography of a Turkish bath is not set in stone, but it is ritualized and, when done traditionally, proceeds at a relaxed pace (although some of the scrubbing ministrations can better be described as vigorous). Like a Japanese tea ceremony or a native American sweat lodge, it is a process of removing oneself from the outside world and focusing on a moment-to-moment present-tense experience.
I had just toured the harems of the Topkapi Palace which were designed by the same architect who designed the Ayasofya Hamam. I’d seen the sultan’s chambers and baths, and the hall of the concubines, surrounded by their baths. Now I was in one, having the same experience in the same kind of surroundings they might have enjoyed three or four hundred years ago.
The Ayasofya Haman is one of the more expensive bath experiences in Istanbul, and it’s marketed to tourists and upscale Turks. But don’t be fooled by the bilingual flyers, the multi-lingual website, and pricing in Euros. There is nothing inauthentic here. For those who complain that the experience is touristy, I would point out that in addition to the bathing and massage treatments popular with tourists, the hamam offers services grounded in local traditions: wedding treatments that include henna hand painting, bride and groom baths, and a ritual to celebrate the circumcision of a newborn.