What indulgent secrets did the Turkish sultans safeguard behind closed doors? How do you unwind after a day of imperial stress? This is one secret too good to be kept, so grab your peştamal (towel) and get ready for some seriously indulgent hamam time....
The Turkish hamam, considered to be a kind of a sauna or steam bath, has always played an important role in the country's society. More than a wellness retreat, the local hammam was a spot for social gatherings, where marriage proposals were made to young maidens by elderly ladies on behalf of their sons and where men talked shop and cut business deals.
Hamams were also a testing ground for young architects. If they could put a proper dome over a hamam, they could move on to bigger projects like mosques. Some of the city's best-preserved landmarks are Mimar Sinan’s hamams such as the Çemberlitaş, Mihrimah Sultan and Haseki Hürrem hamams.
Even though the centuries-long tradition of hamam-going came to an end in the mid-20th century when each new home was installed with a bath of its own, the ritual of spending time in a Turkish hamam is now more of an indulgence that you can treat yourself to. Bridal hamams are especially popular with the younger crowd as bachelorette parties, where singing and belly dancing are a must.
A traditional Turkish hamam has three interconnected rooms called the sıcaklık (caldarium), which is the hot room; the warm room (tepidarium), which is the intermediate room; and the soğukluk, which is the cool room (frigidarium). In the hot room, you soak up steam and get scrub massages from the hands of an experienced therapist. The warm room is used for washing with soap and water, and the cool room is for relaxing, getting dressed, having a refreshing drink such as pomegranate juice or sometimes tea, and, where available, a nap in a private cubicle after the massage.
Kiliç Ali Pasa, Istanbul
Hamam clothing isn't complicated, swimming bottoms or a bikini for the ladies will suffice. After you get undressed, the first thing you will be handed is a peştamal. This is a traditional Turkish towel made from a super-thin and very absorbent cloth made either from silk or cotton. Peştamals, though traditional, are making a huge comeback on the beaches around Turkey, probably due to their small small convenient size. Footwear is also necessary to prevent slipping on the hamam's marble floors. A pair of traditional wooden clogs (nalins), or regular flip-flops will do the job.
After dressing you can take your 'kese', a rough mitt for massage and scrub and ready yourself for some true indulgence...
* A phrase in cultural Turkish etiquette, which is said whenever a person has shaven or showered, meaning "may you remain in good health."
While you may find that your hotel has a luxurious hammam inside its spa, we also suggest experiencing this ritual like a true Istanbulite in these historical hammams built by Mimar Sinan...
Tarihi Mihrimah Sultan Hamam, Fevzipaşa Cad. No:333 Edirnekapı, Istanbul, Tel: +90 212 5230 487, www.mihrimahsultanhamami.com
Çemberlitaş Hamamı: Vezirhan Caddesi, 8, Çemberlitaş, Istanbul, Tel. +90 212 5227 974, www.cemberlitashamami.com
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı: Cankurtaran Mah., Bab-ı Hümayum Cd No:1, Sultanahmet/İstanbul, Tel. +90 212 5173 535, www.ayasofyahamami.com