Before shower units made an appearance in our country, people used to go to the neighborhood bathhouse (hamam). I recall going once or twice myself. The hamam, according to my rather hazy recollection – and thus relying more on what my grandmother and grandfather (pictured) related to me – is a place like this:
First, you head into a small separate room, disrobe and wrap a waistcloth provided by the hamam around your body before donning bath clogs on your feet. Unlike the gym, you don’t have to change your clothes in front of everyone!
Afterward, you head to the main section, a place that is hot, steamy, damp and bedecked in marble. Right in the middle is an alter-like stone called a “göbektaşı” under a small dome. Some choose to lie down here and sweat out their toxins for a good 15-20 minutes, while others head straight for the basin to wash.
A functionary known as a “tellak” soon comes to attend to those lying on the göbektaşı; first he administers a foam bath before scrubbing them down with a coarse bath glove. Doing so does wonders for one’s pores and results in truly healthy-looking skin.
After the completion of all the scrubbing and the washing, it’s out of the main section and into a hall set at a normal temperature for some resting and relaxation accompanied by tea, coffee and other beverages.
The only thing then left is to return to your room, get dressed and depart.
In the past, however, the Turkish hamam had far more uses than simply, as its name suggests, being a place to bathe.
The local hamam was a place to go to for all and sundry from the neighborhood, with separate days for women and men.
The women’s hamam was always full of color and fun. Because there were no cafés or restaurants in which they could meet and chat at the time, they used to get together at the hamam. Sometimes, they would pack along food as if they were going on a picnic, take along their saz, get clean and then dance while eating, drinking, singing and making merry. When viewed from this angle, the women’s hamam was a much-loved place of socialization.
Such hamams were equally a place to scope out possible brides for the men in the family. With most women in those days blanketed in the chador, the women in the man’s family could only cast their eye on girls betrothed to their menfolk at the hamam while they were in the nude to determine any possible bodily imperfections. For this, there was a ritual: After stripping naked, the bride-to-be would circumambulate the göbektaşı three times with her equally naked friends and accompanying relatives. The prospective groom’s women relatives would sit on the göbektaşı, performing the necessary inspections. After completing the triple tour, the expectant bride would kiss the hands of her beloved’s matriarchs, thus bringing the ceremony to a close and ushering in the requisite song and dance.
Additionally, the women’s hamam was the spa of yesteryear, functioning as the address for epilation with various herbs, oil massages, proper scrub-downs to renew the skin, foam baths and even hair care.
Up to a certain age, boys could accompany their mothers, but when the child got a bit older, it was customary for the mother to receive a warning from the other women: “Madame… Madame… Your son’s grown as big as a post, but you’re still bringing him here. Maybe it’s time for his dad to bring him!” Such a warning was accompanied by a cascade of erotic laughter, while the boy, left shamefaced, would no longer come, heading subsequently for the men’s section along with his father.
The women’s hamam also attracted plenty of attention from Orientalist writers and painters. No doubt you’ve seen or read about old gravures and paintings depicting how a wealthy woman and assorted concubines would wash and get clean. There’s no need to mention that in these exaggerated pictures and depictions, both the customer and the people washing her were always young, beautiful and half-naked.
All of this came to mind one sunny Sunday as I was dining at Solage’s Solbar. Seated in the vicinity of our table were young and well-manicured ladies sporting white bathrobes. But with their uncovered feet and the way their bathrobes spread when they crossed their legs, the image created certainly didn’t fall short of the erotic ones depicted by Orientalist painters from the Turkish women’s hamam. What’s more, these women hadn’t even gone for a swim in the pool in front of us. So why on earth were they sitting in bathrobes?
My son was on hand to satisfy my curiosity: “These are all women who’ve come from Solage’s Spa.”
I really like the hotel-restaurants that appear before you when you get out of San Francisco. Particularly on Sunday afternoons, they offer a wonderful chance to eat in peace in a beautiful and well-maintained garden. But I like Solage and its Solbar even more.
And if you’re wondering what I dined on at its restaurant, which is recommended by Michelin, I’m not going to say, “I couldn’t remember because I kept on looking around me.” As it is, I gazed around intently. These young ladies, who come to the spa to get fit, mostly dug into double cheeseburgers, French fries and giant sandwiches – just like Turkish women at the hamam!
As for me, I contented myself with grilled chicken and a few glasses of wine.