Visit a Hamam – My wife and I went to the historic Çemberlitas Hamam, built in 1584 and designed by the architect Sinan. You enter from Vezirhan Street across from a column build by Constantine just a few blocks from the Grand Bazaar. Entering you step down into a multi-storied domed hall where you purchase your tickets. This may be the last person you meet who speaks English, so it might be good to ask a few questions. We didn’t, which forced us to just go with it. Some people can handle being bewildered (that would be me) and others cannot (that would be my wife). We purchased the deluxe package which included a 30-minute massage. Nowadays, this package is less still than $70 per person, but there is the traditional package that is only $40 and includes the scrub-down. You can also get the self-service pass for $25. Çemberlitas Hamam is one of the more expensive Hamam’s so you can definitely pay less, but be sure to do your research to make sure you find a place that is well-maintained.
The two of us had very different experiences. Under the huge dome in the men’s bath through the haze of steam I saw men wrapped in the cotton towels like the one I’d been given. They were mostly lying on the round heated marble disc just under the oculus of the dome. A few were being scrubbed by attendants, but most were either sweating or going to the fountains on the sides of the room and pouring warm water over themselves. I just did what I saw the others do and waited, wondering what would happen next. About 15 minutes later an attendant came over and started the scrubbing bath right on the warm marble. It was very relaxing and soapy. He escorted me into the smaller entrance hall and directed me to take a rinsing shower. Once I was back he did some pulling and stretching of my arms and legs. He spoke minimal English, but we were able to figure things out.
This was the end of the traditional bath. He pointed to a door for the massage room. There were 4 tables and 2 masseuses. I lay on my stomach and waited my turn. This was my second massage ever (the first was in Hot Springs, Arkansas) and honestly its not something I like that much, but when in Istanbul… It was an oil massage and it covered every spot on my body except the places you definitely don’t want touched by strangers. Though it is advertised as 30 minutes, mine was longer than that. Maybe they weren’t busy that day. It was far better than my experience in Hot Springs. Once done I went back to my dressing room, unlocked the locker and got ready to go, feeling a little oily, but very very relaxed.
My wife’s experience was somewhat different. First, the female attendants spoke not a word of English and communicated with grunts and pointed fingers. On the men’s side it was impossible to distinguish the customers from the attendants. Everyone was wrapped in a towel and that’s it. On the women’s side the attendants wore bikini bottoms and clients had only a towel. And these attendants did not look like the women on the hamam’s website. They were big and strong with lots of ages represented. Imagine how it must have felt being assisted by big, grunting, topless Turkish women if you are a modest, small American woman. While the actual bath and massage were good, my wife found it a bit traumatic and she seems uncertain whether she will do it again.
The masseuses will expect a tip as they would most places, but since you are naked…you don’t have any cash on you. They will meet you in the main lobby area. Dollars or Euros are fine.
I will definitely take the plunge again. And the next time, I’ll know what to expect.
Attend a Whirling Dervish Show – Near the Galata Tower in the Galata district is the most famous Sufi performance hall, but it is currently closed, so your best bet is the Hodjapasha Art & Culture Center in the Old City very near Ankara Street and the Train Station. The shows are performed in an old Hamam that has been beautifully renovated. The show is the Mevlevi sect Sema ceremony which is unique to Turkey. It begins with a 15 minute concert of Turkish music and continues with a 45 minute dervish show with traditional music. This performance is far removed from the original whirling dances, with its expert lighting, professionally produced music and pristine costumes but it is nonetheless a mesmerizing experience.
In case you were wondering, a dervish is a Muslim ascetic who has adopted a simple lifestyle to become closer to Allah. Whirling Dervishes are part of the Sufi sect of Islam. Sufis are Islam’s mystics and are inspired by the writings and teachings of Rumi, a 13th century poet and teacher who was born in what is now Afghanistan and died in Turkey. Sufism focuses less on the texts of Islam and more on the inner life of the Muslim. Meditation and spiritual experiences are what Sufis seek. The whirling dance is a form of moving meditation and was not intended as a performance but as a way divorce the dervish from the world and connect with the divine. Sufis have been persecuted by other Muslims through the ages. Sufi mysticism has had a significant influence on other mystical groups and there are now groups who call themselves Sufis who are not Muslims.
Visit a Classic Mosque – The mosques of the early Ottoman Era (from about 1450-1600) took elements of Byzantine architecture, especially the layout and domes of the Hagia Sophia, and blended them with traditional Arab mosque building creating an altogether new kind of temple. The most famous of these mosques is the Blue Mosque, which is more properly called the Sultan Ahmet Mosque. It was the last important mosque of this classic era and stands adjacent to what its inspiration, the Hagia Sophia, older than 1100 years at the time the Blue Mosque was being built. Not far away is the Süleymaniye Mosque which was built 60 years earlier and was also inspired by the Byzantine church. Both of these mosques have large domes surrounded by smaller half domes and both have courtyards surrounded by arcades for large events. The older mosque was designed by the renowned Islamic architect Sinan, while the Blue Mosque was designed by one of his pupils.
Why should you visit a mosque? As Aldous Huxley knew, we cannot understand other countries and other peoples until we have seen and touched what is important to them. There is a strong current of Iconoclasm in Islam. This is the belief that it is a sin to portray humans and animals in art. Portraits were considered a form of idol worship. For this reason the creativity and art of Muslim cultures has usually centered on decoration and ornamentation, often inspired by the plant kingdom. And these great mosques contain some of the finest examples of this kind of decoration. You will see clearly the strong influence this sort of design has had on our culture and decorative arts.
Approaching the door to these mosques you will see the geometric ornamentation over the doorways carved in the gray stone of the building. Your guide will ask you to take off your shoes. Woman will be given scarves for their heads (as is done in some Roman Catholic churches). To go inside you must be dressed modestly which means that you cannot be wearing shorts or a short skirt.
Walking into these houses of worship, you will notice there are no seats or benches for worshipers who kneel for services. The floor is covered with prayer rugs which are replaced when they wear out. Above the heads of worshipers and visitors there are lights hanging from a low hanging fixtures allowing worshipers to read easily. The walls are primarily covered with ornately decorated tiles. In the Blue Mosque the tiles are primarily blue, while in the Süleymaniye Mosque the dominant color is red.
There is something profound about exploring houses of worship. No matter the current state of the world or the conflicts or tragedies we are facing, these temples honoring our Gods display what is good in our natures. Beauty and love are our common heritages, no matter our form of worship. And a mosque is as good a place as any to experience the inspiration of our quest for something greater.