Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Day at the Roman Baths

Saturday 17 May 2008



OK, it’s not a real Roman bath, but it’s probably the closest thing. A hammam - or Turkish bath - is a direct descendant of the Roman bathhouse. I describe my visit to a Moroccan hammam in From Ostia to Alexandria with Flavia Gemina. And what better place to experience a Turkish bath than in Turkey? There are several here in Istanbul but our guide recommends the 18th century Cagaloglu Hammam because it is nearest to our hotel, the Yashmak Sultan.

Men have the privilege of using the main entrance. Of course. The women’s part of the baths are reached on a sidestreet called ‘Hamam’. You enter a white marble vestibule to find rubber and wooden bath slippers in a rack on one side. Ancient Romans wore wood and leather clogs in the baths, too! You take a pair and go to the admissions desk. At this point the woman will ask you what tariff you want.

I choose the super but not deluxe as I only have an hour to spare. The super includes body scrub and massage but not the bubbles. It costs 68 Turkish lira, about £25. In Morocco a similar experience can be bought for under £5. But in Morocco you don’t get your own private cubicle with couch, shelf, mirror and hairdryer. This cubicle also comes with a heavy brass key which tells the bath assistants which tariff you have opted for. In addition, the numbered keys let them know in which order to serve you. On busy days it can get quite crowded, but at 5.45pm on a Saturday afternoon it isn’t too bad.

In my cubicle I find a light towel, like a tea towel: only bigger. It’s called a peshtemal. This is to cover your modesty as you pass through the rather public camekan, or changing room (the equivalent of the Roman apodyterium). In my cubicle, I take off my clothes, keeping just my briefs on. In a plastic carrier bag I have shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, a hairbrush and a scouring mitt from the Marrakech bazaar.

With my peshtemal wrapped around me, I pass through the camekan and proceed to a warm room where I find a lots of fluffy, clean, proper towels on a table. This room is called the soglukluk and is probably the Roman equivalent of the tepidarium, the warm room. You could sit here and chat to your friends without beads of sweat dripping from the tip of your nose.

I take a warm, fluffy towel (you have to bring your own to the hammams I visited in Morocco) and head towards the hot room, but an assistant sends me back, telling me the towels are for afterwards.

I put the towel back and move cautiously across the wet marble floor into a beautiful, steamy domed room lit by beams of sunlight. This is the hararet, the equivalent of the caldarium or the sudatorium. There are columns here supporting a high dome pierced by flower-shaped holes to let in air and light. Around the walls of this room are marble benches and marble shell basins with two brass taps above each - one for hot and one for cold - so you can mix the water to your liking. Shallow tin bowls float in these basins; you use them to tip water over yourself. The bowls look just like pateras, the flat, broad bowls Romans used to pour libations.

In the centre of the hararet is a hexagonal marble plinth. This is called the gobek tashi and it is where the bath assistants give you your scrub and massage. The female bath assistants wear bathing costumes. They are mostly Rubenesque of figure so I feel sylph-like in comparison.

I find a seat by one of the marble shell-basins and pour cool water over myself as I watch the masseuses at work. In the Fes hammam I received a rough but cheerful buffeting at the hands of an old Moroccan crone. I send up a prayer that I’ll get someone gentle. After fifteen minutes in the hot steamy room, one of the women calls me over.

Her name is Phyllis, which she indicates means ‘happy’. She doesn’t speak English, but knows enough words to get me to lie down on the warm, slippery, wet marble with a rubber cushion under my head. Then she takes my own scrubber and rubs first my front and then my back. Phyllis then sits me up and takes great delight in showing me the grey worms of dead skin she is sloughing off my body. Ewww! Fifteen minutes in the hot steam room have done their work.

After scrubbing me from neck to sole, she has me get off the platform and follow her to one of the shells. She sluices me down with lukewarm water, just the right temperature. Then it is back to the slab for a massage with a banana-scented mixture of soap and oil. She does my front, back, scalp, hands, feet, arms, everything. She is firm but not rough and it’s so relaxing that I almost drift off.

Finally she moves back to the marble bench and has me sit at her feet. If I hadn’t already washed my hair, she would have done it for me now. Instead, she sluices me over and over with cool water, just the right temperature. I’m done!

I slip on my clogs, and move carefully out of the domed steam room to the warm room. Here I take two of the proper towels – one for body, one for hair – and discard my peshtemal in the bin provided. Then back to my cubicle to put on some body lotion and lie down for five minutes. You must do this. I discovered the hard way when I left the Fes hammam in too much of a hurry and nearly passed out.

Phyllis is waiting in the camekan, sipping apple tea. If I didn’t have to rush, I could enjoy one, too. I give her a nice tip and go out into the warm Istanbul evening feeling relaxed, fragrant, tingly and cool. Later, looking at the literature about these baths, I discover that the Cagaloglu Hammam is one of 1000 Places to See Before You Die!

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