The Hammam Experience

By Suzanne Keyser

On my November, 1996, Belly Dance trip to Turkey with Serena, the other coordinator, Renate, insisted that we visit the hammam. Having heard about Turkish baths before, I was skeptical, but since I am an adventurer, I agreed. She suggested we have a light dinner before going as the heat might upset a full stomach.

We walked down the hill to the Kumkapi district near the Sea of Marmara for a fabulous fresh seafood feast. The variety of different fish such as lufer, kalkan, palamut, istavrit, and barbuny was brought to the table on a three-tiered silver tray with the top portion flambe! Of course various mezzas were served as well. One of our favorites was ezme, a spicy mixture of tomato, lemon juice, chili peppers and a little vinegar served with pita bread, and marinated octopus.

After dinner the Turkish Gypsy musicians came into the restaurant, and as soon as we got up to dance, they were thrilled. The patrons went wild and started showering us with large bills and I couldn’t believe how fast the musicians’ hands grabbed the money out of the air and even our hands. Julie got upset and stuffed a bill under her sweater where it was safe, but I just laughed, as this is customary here, the way they make their living.

We climbed back up the steep hill to Cemberlitas Bath, which was commissioned by the Banu Sultan, wife of Sultan Selim II. This public bath was built in 1584 by the legendary Turkish architect Mimar Sinan, and is one of the most important works of 16th century Ottoman architecture. After we paid $10 for our bath and massage, we were issued a red and yellow pestemal, a tiny rough Turkish towel large enough to cover a man’s privates but barely a woman’s torso. We were also given a chit to give to the masseur and a locker key. We proceded to the locker room and changed out of our clothes, and Renate suggested we bring $5 to tip the tellah, or masseuse.

The hammam was so elegant I could hardly believe it! There was a huge elevated circular marble platform in the center of the tepidarium which was heated from beneath by natural hot springs, where you lie to sweat until it is your turn for the “experience.” The entire room was of beautiful white, grey and beige marble with Roman arches around the perimeter and alcoves behind these. Each alcove had a large marble wash basin with a hot and cold water tap, and a plastic bowl to douse yourself with water. The ceiling of the hammam was quite beautiful, as there were small round windows covering the entire dome allowing both the sunshine or moonlight to dance upon the circular marble slab.

Cemberlitas Bath, Istanbul, Turkey

It was 36º F outside when we arrived at the hammam, and it took me longer to warm up on the slab; so when the tellah tried to grab my hand, I motioned I was not ready yet. She proceded around our circle from the opposite side, so I could peek at what was to come. The tellah was an older woman with several teeth missing; her bare stomach and breasts were large and drooped quite low over the famous black panties they all wear for some unknown reason. Renate describes the experience as feeling like you are a child again, and as I watched each girl become as limp as noodles, I started to understand.

Now it was my turn, and the tellah again grabbed my hand and led me to the other side of the slab, bringing my tiny towel along. She asked if I wanted my hair washed too, but then shook her head no. Guess she didn’t want to disturb my natural curls. Then she laid my pestemal down and motioned me to lie on my stomach. The next sensation was quite nice, as she filled a pillow case with warm sudsy water and squeezed it on top of me. Then came the famous skin scrub with something that felt like a brillo pad, and I had to wince so she would back off on the pressure. She proceded to show me a mass of dead skin she was exfoliating from my body. Now came the pillow case of warm water again and the more pleasant part, the massage. Her powerful hands knew exactly where I was aching, as she adeptly loosened my tight muscles. I could feel myself melting into the marble; then she flipped me on my back and worked on my neck and legs.

My time was almost up and she took me by the hand to one of the alcoves to rinse me and my towel off. Then she led me around like a child to where she wanted to position me, flung my pestemal out, and helped me onto the slab to cook some more.

We each had our turn, and finally the tellah said good-bye. It was almost midnight, closing time. After she left, at Renate’s urging we all got up on the center of the marble slab and sang “Mustafa” as we belly danced under the streams of moonlight coming from the domed ceiling. It was a magical moment. Thinking that millions of women had experienced the same bliss over the last 412 years, it felt like we were communing with them all.

Suzanne Keyser (a.k.a. Inshala) has been dancing since the age of five, performing ballet, modern dance, jazz, hula and flamenco. She began belly dancing in 1980, and continues to study with Yousry Sharif. Other major dance influences include Shareen el Safy, Serena Wilson, Dalia Carella, Ibrahim Farrah, and Amaya. Suzanne has performed in Greece, Turkey, Russia, Egypt and Europe, as well as on cruise ships in the South Pacific. Currently she is Director of Belly Dance at Istanbul Restaurant in Honolulu where she also performs several nights a week. Suzanne has has been writing magazine articles for fourteen years. She holds a BS in Agriculture from the University of Hawaii.

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