Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Taste of Turkey - Day Five

A bath experience in a Hamam - photo courtesy of kosmeticschule-frankfurt.de

Today we have another huge program.  We spend the morning visiting the archaeological museums, and the afternoon at the Suleymaniye mosque and the fourth most venerated Muslim site in the world, the tomb of Ayoub al-Ansari (Eyüp Ensari in Turkish).

Sarcophagus of the Crying Women
The archaeological museums are a huge complex of three buildings.  It is overwhelming, and I can't make much sense out of what I'm seeing.  We spend time in all three buildings.  Only a few impressions stick.  I see a beautiful tribute to women on a sarcophagus (Greek?  I have no idea.) of women mourning the loss of their loved ones in battle.   I manage to walk right past the Kadesh peace treaty without really noticing it.  This is a treaty  between the Egyptian Ramesses II and a Hattusili III, a Hittite king (ancient Turkish race), and is the oldest known peace treaty in the world.  

From the museums, we walk to the Suleymaniye mosque, the largest one in Istanbul, and also built by Sinan. We eat lunch in a restaurant run by the mosque.  Harun tells us that mosques run little businesses to serve the public and also to finance their upkeep.  We have a simple but delicious lunch of beans and rice.  The mosque is beautiful and surely impressive, but I'm getting tired of seeing one mosque after another, all built by the same architect in the same style.

A little boy on pilgrimage with his family on the day before his circumsion
Finally, we board our bus and drive to the end of the Golden Horn, where we find the tomb of  Ayoub al-Ansari.  We learn that this man was close to Mohammed, whom he met in Medina.  He was one of his most prized warriors.  He was buried outside the walls of Constantinople (Istanbul), and now his tomb is considered a holy site.  Many of the sultans were buried near his tomb.  This is still a popular pilgrimage destination.  We see a little boy and his family who are visiting the tomb on the day before his circumcision.  Muslims circumcise their boys at around age three or four.  Harun asks the boy if he is afraid of tomorrow.  He smiles and shakes his head no.  He has already been bribed by lots of sweets, his distinctive costume and a day out in his honor with the relatives. 

We are finally finished with our strenuous sightseeing program.  I feel tired, pious, in need of a more sensual sort of piety - in need of a rub-down.  I'd love to have one of those lovely scrubs, like the one I had in Egypt.  I've already been introduced to the lovely feeling of having a strange woman scrub me down, and if it's weird, it's only because it's weirdly wonderful.

On our first day, Harum recommended that we go to a hamam, a Turkish bath, at some time during our stay here.  He described what happens at a hamam.  It sounds a lot like what I experienced in Egypt, but I'm not sure.  I was in an Egyptian steam bath that day.  The only thing I really thought I knew about Turkish steam baths is that gays like to go to the Turkish steam bath in New York City.  I could only imagine what goes inside that kind of steam bath, so the idea of going to one here in Istanbul felt like a possibly decadent thing to do.  But I find Harum to be a very clean-living Muslim, and what he described sounds a lot like what I had experienced in Egypt.

By the time I return from the Suleymaniye mosque, it's too late to walk over to the Cemberlitas HamamI manage to squeak into the hotel Larespark hamam for a “Kese and foam massage”, a Turkish version of a scrub in a hamam.  I only get in because someone hasn't shown up for their appointment.  I'm completely unprepared, not even having a bathing suit along.  But this spontaneous event turns out to be the highlight of my day.  

I show up at the receptionist’s, and she hands me a thin cotton towel and a key.  “Put this in locker number seven,” she says.  Put what in locker number seven?  “Your clothes and towel – everything there.” 

“Shall I get naked?”

“Yes – I come for you.”

I enter the ladies changing room baffled.  I find locker number seven and open it up, only to find a thick pink bath towel and brilliant orange Styrofoam flip-flops in this handsome dark wooden cabinet.  I take off my clothes and contemplate sitting on the bench and waiting for the lady.  How will she know I'm ready?  How can I get into the steam bath naked and avoid being seen by men?  There are men wandering around the reception area!    I decide that I probably misunderstood the woman.  What she probably meant was, “Take off your clothes and wrap this towel around you.  You have everything you need in your locker, including another towel and slippers.”  So, I wrap the thin towel around me, put on the orange flip-flops and carry the locker key and thick pink towel back to the reception area.  Now there's a man working at reception  I ask him what to do.  He doesn't seem a bit surprised by my question, and simply points to a room.  He tells me to sit down there and wait.

Sit down where and wait?  There's a bench outside the hamam, or there are plenty of niches inside the hamam.  I decide he wants me to wait for the attendant inside the hamam, so I leave my towel on the bench and open the door to a brightly lit steam bath.  There is very little steam, and the lights are so bright, anyone in there could see that I am naked, except for the towel tied precariously below my shoulder, and my flip-flops.  And I find that I am not alone!  Here's an elderly couple - people I even know!  - from my group, walking around the hamam barefoot.  The woman and her husband each have a bathing suit on.  I look at the woman with a questioning expression.  “What do we do here?” I ask.

“I have no idea,” she answers, “but I imagine you keep your flip-flops outside the steam bath.”  She sloshes around the room, which is filled with at least a quarter-inch of water.

“I’m here to get washed,” I say, “but I don’t know if I’m in the right place.” 

“We’ll leave,” she answers.

“Oh, no, you can stay,” I protest.  “I heard that the steam bath is free.”

“No, we’ll go now.  Then you can have your scrub.  My husband finds this boring, anyway.”

So I sit down in one of the niches.  I must have made the right decision, because presently the woman from the reception comes in, carrying a large bucket.  She's wearing a bikini with a towel wrapped around her.

“Go lie down there,” she says, pointing to a huge marble table standing in the middle of the room.  “Head at that end, feet at the other end,” she adds, pointing. 

And my slippers?  “Leave them on the floor.”  On the flooded floor.  OK.  So I clamber onto a table which turns out to be very hot!  With the towel wrapped around me.  “Is that right?” I ask, putting my head down at one end.

“Yes.”  Then she unwraps the towel, covering the lower half of my body with it, and pours warm water all over my legs and derriere, towel included.  And begins to scrub with a loofa glove.  One leg, then the foot, the other leg, the other foot, then up to my thighs, my bottom, my back, my neck.  What will happen to my hair?  We're going out to dinner at the Culinary Institute in just a little over two hours.  Will I have to wash my hair?  No explanation, so I don't ask.  This will work out, I think.

After the lady finishes massaging my neck, she tells me to turn over.  By now the slab is very slippery.  “Be careful,” she warns in English.  I turn over carefully, exposing my breast and private parts to her.  She quickly covers my lower parts with the wet towel and proceeds to massage the front part of my body, from the feet and toes up.  This time she includes my face.  I am getting not only a scrub, but also a very pleasant massage. 

“Will you use soap on me?” I asked.

“For the half-hour scrub I give you the loofa for fifteen minutes, and then soap the last fifteen minutes,” she answers.  I continue to lie there, waiting for the next phase to begin.  This time she takes a bed-sized mesh thing that reminds me of a pillow case.  She dips it in some soapy water.  She shakes it out as though she were going to hang it on a clothes line, then turns to me and squeezes it until billows of foam form a mound over my breasts.  This is not at all like the scrub I had in Egypt!  The stone wasn't there, nor was this pillow case foam bath.  The attendant shakes out the pillow case-thing a couple of times.  By now I must be completely hidden in foam.  She rubs my body with this foam, which lubricates my body like oil.  My legs feel silky as she massages them.  She massages my entire front side except for my private parts.  “Turn around again, please,” she says.  I carefully turn over, resting my cheek against the slab.  She massages this side.  What a smooth massage!  And I'm even getting clean in the process. 

When she finishes, she says, “You can sit up now, and walk over to this niche.  Be careful.”  I am not about to risk falling and breaking one of my scrubbed legs.  I make it to the niche and sit down as gracefully as I can.  She takes a silver bowl and starts pouring water from a tub next to the niche, all over me, rinsing off all the suds, wetting my hair thoroughly.  She now pours shampoo onto my hair, massages my scalp, and pours water over my head again.  Another round of shampoo, another basin of water rinsing it all off.  She does this several times and then asks me to stand.  As I stand, she continues to pour water all over me.  “You can do this, too,” she says.  So I take the bowl and pour water over myself a couple of times.  She pours a couple more bowls of water over me, then many bowls over the slab, which she finally wipes dry.  She gives a little bow.  “You can get dressed now,” she says, handing me the key and the pink towel.

I stand in the hamam and start to dry myself.  The lady has long since done away with the thin towel.  Now I have to find the changing room.  I wrap the terry towel around my body and tuck it in below my shoulder and, squinting without my glasses, take a little tour of the health center, looking for the changing room.  I pass the swimming pool and some people, men too, resting on chaise longues.  Ah, yes, the changing room is next to reception!

It's no problem getting dressed again, but I have nothing with me to comb my hair with.  I’ll have to ride the elevator looking like a wild woman.  I find ten Turkish lira in my slacks pocket.  They come in handy as a tip for the lady.

Fully dressed, with my hair wet and wild, I leave the changing room, throw the towel and flip-flops into two baskets, and go to the reception area.  The lady has left.  A man is standing there in her stead.  “Where’s the lady who scrubbed me?” I ask.

 “She’s bathing someone now,” he answers.       

He takes the money from me, promising to give it to her, and we arrange to put the bill for the scrub - €29, onto my room bill.

The only person I meet on the elevator is a guy on the staff.  I suppose he’s seen plenty of women with wet, snarled hair.  I am not wild, no matter how I may look.  I am mellow enough to lie down and rest in a state of satisfied stupor.  Instead, I cream myself, dry my hair and get dressed once again for a night on the town.  I leave for the next adventure, cleansed, creamed and calm.

Our dinner at the Culinary Institute is delicious, and the decor such that you could be anywhere from Portland, Oregon, to New York City, to London.  Industrial-trendy.  We order a combination of Western and Turkish food and enjoy being utterly spoiled at moderate prices.  We know the institution, having eaten in the Institute in Portland, Oregon.  The students at the institute are also the waiters and chefs.  We have a nice chat with one of the students after the meal.  This restaurant feels almost homey in its atmosphere - expats are here, celebrating the end of a conference.  We hear English spoken.  What a wonderful contrast Istanbul is.  We've seen ancient history today, I've had a wonderful old-fashioned scrub just like one the biblical Queen Esther might have had, and we've had a very modern night on the town.  Peter and I talk about coming back again - with our son.  He'd like it here.      

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