The Turks may disdain Istanbul's ancient hammams, but for one visitor, a good pummeling by a linebacker-sized masseuse can transport her to another era
Yavuz Draman

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.

You pay for your treatments in the camekan; the rates ($10 to $15) and procedures—which the cashier explains in extremely basic English, or French, or German, or whatever language you speak—are essentially the same at both establishments. At Cemberlitas, only the men are given changing rooms; women are siphoned into a communal dressing area that has all the exotic appeal of a locker room at the Y. But Cagaloglu gives the women an identical, though separate, camekan. There, each minuscule changing room contains a cot with a faded but clean cotton coverlet and a small table, on which in Ottoman times you would have found a narghile, or hookah, for your après-bain pleasure.

"Undress," said a uniformed duenna, who reminded me uneasily of James Bond's nemesis in From Russia with Love, Rosa Klebb; it seemed unwise to argue. I stripped off my clothes, wrapped myself protectively in a pestamal, a sort of king-sized dish towel worn like a sarong, and put on a pair of semi-antique wooden clogs. (At Cemberlitas you're issued plastic shower sandals—possibly more hygienic but not at all authentic.) "Come," said Rosa, and I followed her into a narrow chamber—the sogukluk, or cooling-off room—where you can pick up a cake of olive-oil soap or get dry towels after your treatment. Klebb opened a wooden door. There was a blast of hot, humid air and a glimpse of a high octagonal space full of vapor, lit by star-shaped windows in the domed ceiling. I stepped in, wooden clogs clomping on the wet marble.

The first thing you notice about a hammam, after the heat and the steam, is the flesh. The patrons, all stark naked, lie on their unwrapped pestamals on a heated octagonal marble slab in the center of the room, and sweat. Masseuses built like linebackers and clad in sumo-wrestler thongs pummel and knead them. It did look a bit like Ingres's fantasy—reimagined by David Lynch. I lowered myself tentatively onto the hot slab; it was a bit on the hard side, but the temperature and humidity were soporific. From time to time I roused myself to slosh cool water over my skin from a copper bowl. As I approached meltdown, one of the masseuses materialized out of the mist, poured a basin of hot water over my naked body, soaped me liberally, and then began to knead my muscles, section by section, limb by limb, with strength and efficiency. Muscles and tendons I didn't know I had relaxed, and I decided that my chic Turkish pals were missing out on something.

Once I was rendered entirely limp, I was summoned to a marble bench along the wall and doused with warm water, then lathered up again and scoured with a loofah from the nape of my neck to the soles of my feet. It was entirely unexpected and amazingly sensual, the way I imagine a snake feels when it sheds its skin. I recalled Thackeray's observation: "A cool, sweet, dreamy languor takes possession of the purified frame; and half an hour of such delicious laziness is spent... as is unknown in Europe." I'd had a "real" Turkish bath, and the next time I come to Turkey, I'd do it again.

Amanda Vaill is a New York-based writer currently completing a biography of Jerome Robbins.

Istanbul Baths