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By: Camille Hoheb
Posted: October 26, 2010, from the November 2010 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.
Cemberlitas Hamam features a large dome in the hararet and natural light streaming through glass pinpoints called elephant eyes.
Hamams, or Turkish baths, are a hot trend in spa services today, and yet they are as old as yoga and have been part of a cleansing ritual in many lands for thousands of years.
The origin of the word hamam, which is specifically spelled with only one “m” when referring to a Turkish facility, comes from the Arabic word for “heat.” With Turkey’s unique position as a country occupying both Asia and Europe, this special tradition spread far and wide, to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
The hamam concept
Having the good fortune to meet with Zeki Karagulle, MD, and his wife Mena during a recent trip to Turkey, I had the best possible insiders’ guide to the hamams of Istanbul. We met over a gastronomic array of traditional Turkish fare at lunch near the University of Istanbul, where both practice medicine. Here, I learned about the wellness benefits of hamams, and the history of Turkish baths.
For those who have never heard of or experienced a hamam, the concept was derived from the Roman bath. Muslims were quick to inherit the tradition to be clean in body and soul in the hamam. The major components of a traditional hamam are a hot room, known as a hararet, a warm, intermediate room and a cool room. The hararet is an essential element for every hamam construction, and houses a centrally located, flat, marble heated platform known as a göbek taşı, or belly stone. This is the crowning glory of the hamam, and people lie on it to sweat and detoxify; the belly stone defines the hamam experience. A humid atmosphere is created by the water that runs from the side wall fonts called kurna. These faucets also supply water for washing and rinsing. The hot air temperature helps relieve pain by encouraging physical and mental relaxation while the high humidity (80–100%) produces intense sweating, aids in detoxification and also has positive effects on the nose, throat and pulmonary airways.
I arranged an appointment at Cemberlitas (pronounced chem-behr-LEE-tahsh) Hamam. Upon my arrival, Turkish hospitality and tea were extended as the facility’s manager and I talked about the great architect Sinan, the designer of Cemberlitas, known for his outstanding contribution to Ottoman architecture. Soon, I was escorted into the women’s hamam to begin my treatment; I chose the Luxury Style Hamam Treatment, which cost $63. I was given a warm, thin cotton-fringed towel called a pestemal and changed. Tokens that corresponded to my service and a small cloth bag were handed to me. The attendant was wonderful in guiding me through the process, and welcomed me into the main chamber. I marveled at the amount of marble, and the richness of the combined architectural elements. At the center was the gray, marble belly stone on which some women were lying on their pestemals while others were being scrubbed or massaged in clouds of soapy bubbles. This particular belly stone can accommodate 30 bathers at once. Along the perimeter, bathers were using ornate metal bowls from the faucet to rinse themselves. Scanning the room, there were women of all shapes and sizes, colors and ages; it was a comfortable feeling. My attendant asked for my pestemal and instructed me to lie down.