I was going to Istanbul, and I wanted to visit a real Turkish bath, the kind Ingres painted in his Orientalist cheesecake fantasy, Le Bain Turque; the kind that intrepid 18th-century traveler Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote about in her letters from Constantinople; the kind without which my visit would be incomplete. I asked my fashionable Turkish friends about it. "Why would you want to do that?" they said, knitting their shapely brows.
I invoked Lady Mary, who had encountered "many fine women naked in different postures... while their slaves... were employed in braiding their hair." I mentioned William Makepeace Thackeray, who—though enjoying the "sort of pleasure... which, no doubt, potatoes feel when they are steaming"—was shocked when an attendant dashed "something like old Miss MacWhirter's flaxen wig" in his face. As Thackeray discovered during his foray into the Turkish bathing ritual: "For five minutes you are drowned in lather: you can't see, the suds are frothing over your eyeballs; you can't hear, the soap is whizzing into your ears; you can't gasp for breath."
It was politely hinted to me that only tourists and Turks with no bathroom at home would go to a public bathhouse, but I was undeterred. The hammams, I'd read, retained the structure of the imperial Roman baths, with their tepidarium, frigidarium, and caldarium. Unlike the Goths and Vandals in other parts of the empire, the Ottoman conquerors had preserved the Roman originals and adapted them for their own use. They'd recruited their finest architects, among them Mimar Koca Sinan, always referred to as "the great Sinan" in texts, to design new ones, and they'd decorated them with hand-painted ceramic tiles and marble and porphyry. They'd even incorporated the bathhouses into their religion and culture: the men's hammam became the place to bathe as required before Friday prayers; women, who were otherwise forbidden to leave their houses, used their bathhouse to socialize. The hammams embody Istanbul's complex cultural and historical layers, and despite my friends' skepticism, I was determined to test them for myself.
Many hotels in the city, I discovered, list a hammam among their amenities, but most of these are no more than steam rooms: comfortable, clean, modern, and lacking the lounging odalisques and flaxen wigs in the face. In the Old City of Istanbul, a handful of historic baths are attached to mosques, but these seemed less than likely prospects for the Western visitor. Two hammams, however, pride themselves on catering to foreigners. The Cemberlitas baths, near the Grand Bazaar, were built in 1584 to a plan by the great Sinan; the Cagaloglu baths, near Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, date back to the 18th century.
As a kind of dry run before subjecting myself to the full hammam treatment at either or both of these, I checked out another of the great Sinan's offspring, the Baths of Roxelana, named for the scheming wife of Süleyman the Magnificent. Built in the 16th century as the hammam for the mosque of Hagia Sophia, and now, improbably, just a government-run carpet shop, Roxelana's spa has two identical wings, each with an entrance hall, cool room, and steam bath, the last topped with a large dome perforated with tiny windows to let in natural light. Roxelana's baths were stripped of their tiles and marble and brass fittings in the 20th century, and the place now looks more like ABC Carpet & Home than a pleasure dome, but it gave me an idea of the general setup.
Only an idea, as it turned out. Both Cagaloglu and Cemberlitas have also lost some of their original imperial luster. Their camekans, or entrance halls, still have a central marble fountain around which you can sit with a glass of tea before or after bathing. But whereas in Lady Mary's day there would have been musicians playing tambouras and lavtas (lutes), now there's only the sound of Turkish soap operas on the omnipresent television sets. The camekan is ringed by miniature changing rooms, each with a painted wooden door; at Cagaloglu there's a small display of Ottoman bathing paraphernalia, including old brass faucets and copper porringers and goat-hair scrubbers and women's wooden-soled clogs, rather like ultra-platform Dr. Scholl's sandals—ideal for walking on the wet marble floors.