Cleanliness is next to squeamishness

Forgetting about modesty in an Istanbul bathhouse

BY PATRICIA DONOVAN
Last updated 11:39 02/03/2009

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On my way back to the spice market for another fix of fresh Turkish delight, I passed the old bathhouse. I had to go in. You can't spend a week in Istanbul without having a Turkish bath.

Just down the road from the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is the Cagaloglu bathhouse, a building so inconspicuous I might have missed it. I step through an old wrought-iron gate and enter a wooden door to a courtyard once opulent but now in need of repair. Built by Sultan Mahmut I, the Cagaloglu has been here for more than 300 years, one of only two original bathhouses left in Istanbul.

A notice at the reception says if I pass up the opportunity for a bath here, I'll never know what it is like to be clean. I hand over 28 Euro ($70) for a full body scrub, hair wash and massage.

I enter a large hexagonal room lined with little cubicles built from carved wooden panels and etched glass. The panels are only waist high. I would have welcomed more privacy. After taking off my clothes, I wrap myself in an old cotton towel - I wished it wasn't quite so short - and emerge to find Ishnu waiting for me, and leading the way to the inner sanctum of the women's bathroom. It's a glorious, cavernous room of pale-grey marble with sweating columns and a vast dome dotted with tiny star-shaped holes.

Ishnu leads me to one of a dozen little platforms around the edge of the room, each with its own marble basin, called a kurna. She takes my towel and hands me a tas, a small brass bowl with which I pour warm water over myself for 10 minutes.

I lie naked on a huge marble slab in the middle of the room and wait while Ishnu removes her clothes, briefly washes and puts on a huge floral swimsuit. Then she takes a large bowl of soapy water and a kese, a coarse cloth mitt, and proceeds to scrub me. I feel her pleasure in the job. Soaked and covered in foam, I slip and slither across the marble slab, Ishnu pulling me back against her enormous bosom for more vigorous scouring.

After 15 minutes of this, I return to my kurna to rinse off and relax in the steamy room. I'm one of only three women in the bathhouse, all of us tourists. During the Ottoman Empire days, when there were more than 4000 private and 300 public baths in Istanbul, it would have been full.

The Turkish bathhouse, the hamam, has been an institution since the days of the Romans, who passed the tradition on to the Byzantines and then to the Turks. Water shortage made hamams an important public utility, but they were also an essential place for social interaction. Locals went to celebrate significant events: to exchange vows, to bathe before a wedding, usually with food and music, or to participate in a circumcision ceremony. The hamam was where you took house guests as a gesture of hospitality.

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Bathhouses were particularly important for women because they were usually their only source of community. It has been said that during the Ottoman times, if a man refused his wife money for a weekly session, she was entitled to divorce him. Once, it cost a man his life to be found in the women's section of the hamam.

Ishnu beckons me back to the marble slab, armed with a bowl full of blue and green almond-scented soaps and what looks like the hairy end of an old jute mop. She swishes it around the bowl and proceeds to beat me all over. Then she gives me a full body massage.

My bath ends resting against Ishnu's breasts as she washes my hair and massages my face, joyfully oblivious to my panicky gasps for air. She makes me feel like a baby and very, very clean. I emerge rejuvenated.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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