Crossroads Tour: a Hamami, a Camii, a Lost Taxi – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  My Crossroads Tour series details my travels to Florence, Genoa and Istanbul in May 2011.

I begin my day at a Turkish Bathhouse, called a hamami.

Tarihi Gedikpasa was built in 1475 by Hayrettin for Gedik Ahmet Pasa, a statesman and naval commander during the reign of Sultan Mehmet. Hayrettin was considered one of the most important architects of the period and is regarded by many historians to be the teacher of Mimar Sinan. It has the largest dome of any hamami in Istanbul and is one of the most important Ottoman historical buildings in this city. It serves both men and women in segregated parts of the bath.

The lobby and check-in desk at the Tarihi Gedikpasa Hamami

I check in at the front desk and am led to a room with a bed and a chest, where I was instructed to disrobe. I wrap myself in the thin striped cotton towel that they handed me on the way to the room, slip on rubber flip flops, and lock the door behind me. I am led into the bath.

The heat is stifling. A series of domes peppered with round glass windows at the top, allow beams of sunlight to illuminate the marble lined room. My attendant leads me to one of three marble fountains along the wall, where she douses me with water from a bowl which she then hands to me so l can continue to wash. She then directs me to lay down on the large marble platform under the center dome. It feels like it is heated.

In an American spa, you are met with white coated attendants who drape you discreetly in a comfortable but clinical setting. My Turkish attendant is a middle-aged woman in a black bikini who soon separates me from my cotton towel. She begins…

She scrubs me head to toe with a heavy luffa mitt. She motions for me to sit up for more scrubbing. I then lay back down as she lays the striped cotton sheet, now filled with suds, across my back. It feels like being smothered in a blanket of heavy cream. More washing. More turning. Rinsing. Back again for massage and hair treatment. Rinse again. Sit and steam.

The final step is being led to a pool of cool water that did not smell of salt but which made me feel more buoyant than I know I am. The pool is blue tiled, and under another dome with shafts of light coming down through the small squarish windows and piercing through and illuminating the water.  I feel as though I am floating as much in shafts of light as in the cool water of the pool…

This is not the ceiling I was under, but gives you an idea of the sensation I experienced.

There are traces of frescoes throughout this hamami, but no paint could survive so many centuries of steam. I wondered what deals had been struck, what intrigues planned, what gossip shared or weddings arranged over the centuries here.  I walk out into a common area, where I am dried off with a heavy Turkish towel and shown back to my changing room. If I lived here, I’d want to do this every week.

Travel tip: Book your visit to a hamami on a Monday when most of the historic sites are closed. A standard bath is TL35, splurge for the full treatment for TL50 which includes a massage. Remember to bring a bottle of water; this experience, like any spa treatment, will dehydrate you.

Completely refreshed, I walk to the Grand Bazaar for lunch. My waiter is half Turkish, half German, and raised in Boston. My meal is a chicken dish cooked in filo, served in tomato sauce, accompanied by yogurt and garnished with french fries, a culinary detail that continues to baffle me. The salad is the traditional mix of tomato, onion and cilantro, like a very coarsely chopped pico de gallo.

I at my meal and watched people. Turks refer to East Indians as Blacks. I do not know what Turks call Africans, or if they make a distinction. People who work in the service trades need to be competent in at least 5 languages and the successful ones like Cihan have working knowledge of closer to ten. The hospitality and general attitudes towards others here borders on the unreal. People offer to help you almost before you ask, from trying to give you directions, to helping mothers with strollers as they traverse stairs and trams. It was a marked contrast to what I had encountered in Florence, which was not contempt as much as indifference.

It’s time to find the University of Istanbul, and behind it, Suleyman Camii. I discover a street of craftsmen along the way that I nicknamed “Metalsmith Alley”

Travel tip: Mimar Sinan Cadessi, the street that runs along the backside of the University campus, is where you want to buy things after you have experienced the Grand Bazaar. I stopped to watch this artist, Ercan Tekin as he engraved Turkish coffee sets on the sidewalk outside of his shop, and came home with one of his sets. There are a number of working metal shops here, as well other artisan merchants and at least one antique store.

The Suleymaniye Camii is closed for prayer, so I look for Barbarossa’s tomb. There are several major restoration projects occurring in Istanbul right now and much of the Suleymaniye complex is inaccessible. I stop to buy a pair of traditional hand-knit Turkish socks and a prayer cap from a vendor just outside the wall of the complex. After giving him all the cash I had, he smiles and slips a bottle of water into my bag to sustain me on this very hot day.

Sultan Suleyman, called ‘Lawgiver’ by the Turks, reigned from 1520-1566 and was the longest ruling sultan in the history of the Ottoman Empire. He reformed Ottoman law in keeping with Islamic principals and commissioned the building of mosques, schools, hans (hotels), baths, bridges, hospitals, and a large library. Sciences, art and literature flourished during his reign, in part due to his financial patronage. He was referred to as The Magnificent in recognition of these works which he did to serve his religion and his nation. His reign marked the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire.

Chief Architect Mimar Sinan, called Sinan the Great by the Turks, was born into a Christian family sometime between 1494-99. He was recruited into the Janissaries when he was 14-18 years old, and went on to become a military engineer. The campaigns and wars he was engaged in allowed him to see the architecture of several different cultures, which may have formed his own style and skills. Over the fifty years that he served as Chief Architect, Sinan was responsible for the design, construction and restoration of 477 buildings and public works, about 20 of them of which still stand in Istanbul. The Suleyman Camii is regarded as one of his greatest achievements. 

Sultan Suleymaniye Camii

Once inside, I study a ceiling that is a riot of shapes but in more subdued colors than other mosques, which made it the most restful mosque I visited on this trip. I wanted to stay there all afternoon.

Sultan Suleymaniye Camii was built on one of the seven hills of Constantinople (now Istanbul) by Mimar Sinan, and is the largest square based semi-domed mosque he ever designed. It was finished in 1557. A 90-foot wide dome is supported by four ‘elephant’s feet’ pillars which are masked by an arcaded gallery to give the illusion of an immense open space. Mimar imbedded juniper beams among the stones in the foundation to absorb shocks from earthquakes. To improve the acoustics, 255 empty pots were incorporated into the dome. Soot from the oil lamps was directed by a venting system to a chamber, where it was collected for use in calligraphy ink. 

Mosques seem to have a lot more windows than European churches of the same period. Many of the windows are either double pane glass with 12-18″ of air between the two panes, or a pane of glass behind grillwork. I think I saw more stained glass in Istanbul than I saw in all of Venice and Florence combined.

I was also fascinated by the carpets, woven to accommodate worshippers on their own ‘prayer rug’.The sound of multiple pairs of shoes dropping to the marble step in unison as men and women retrieved them after prayers, is a sound that reverberated in my ears for weeks.

The other sound that stayed with me for months after I returned, was that of the calls for prayer — sometimes coming at you from the tops of minarets from three different directions simultaneously. I was not able to record what I heard, but found this one on YouTube.

On my way home I shop a street lined with button shops, fabric shops, and more kitchen shops than I have seen in one place outside of the Chinatowns I had frequented in other cities. I finally find the tiny spoons to complete my tulip glass tea set. I visit Sinan’s tomb (shown at lower left), a very modest structure that I almost missed, tucked away under a wisteria arbor. I think I also passed a synagogue (lower right) which is built like a mosque but with a Star of David window above its door. I also find an English book store and allow myself to splurge, deciding to bring home an Islamic library instead of a Turkish carpet.

In what remains of the day, I head to the Galata Bridge. The top deck is studded with an array of food vendors hawking roasted corn, roasted chestnuts, and savory breads. The rail is lined with fishermen, pulling small silver fish out of the sea on their multi-hook lines. I watch the boats traffic push the surf over the retaining wall.

 I take a very casual stroll along the bottom deck of the bridge which is lined with restaurants. I’m tempted to stop here for dinner but instead, I return to the hotel and start mulling over how to stay here for just one more day.

Back at Hotel Han, I am seated again for dinner at the Captain’s Table. Cihan confers with Baha and suggests a shrimp/tomato/cheese casserole which is served sizzling on a brazier. It’s a nice presentation. I order Raki. Cihan brings two glasses to the table, one filled with water, the other with a single shot of Raki, and pauses over the shot with a bottle of water, but I wave him away. Both he and Baha watch me drink it, straight up. It tastes like ouzo.  

Baha asks what my plan is for tomorrow. “The Ayasofya and the museum,” I said. “You must go to Princes Islands. Very Important.” And he instructs me to take the second train station past the art museum to the end of the line which is the Kabatas Ferry Terminal. One island has a castle, another has a famous church, another has very nice houses. And he makes notations on my map. He gets a phone call and says he needs to leave to meet up with his family. He grabs his jacket, and invites me to come along.

I experience Turkish traffic from the car’s point of view as he weaves through streets that don’t even look passable. We arrive at Lasos Fish Restaurant, where a small group has already gathered. Baha introduces me to one of his friends, Mustafa. Glasses of Raki arrive, and a little later a plate of tuna sashimi and onion, followed by a plate of melon wedges and sheep cheese. Mustafa is quite animated and has an opinion on a lot of topics. I seem to be an anomaly, “that American woman who drinks her Raki straight.” Mustafa asks me if I am Irish. At the end of the evening Baha walks me to the cab stop, gives instructions to the driver, and sends me on my way.

And a new adventure begins…

The cabbie get off the freeway, and stops every few blocks to ask for directions to the hotel. Between stops and turns he mutters “Hotel Han” and “Allah Allah” and throws his hands up in the air. A dry cleaner is shutting down for the night, the cabbie stops to ask him directions. Some random guy is standing on a street corner and cabbie stops for directions but I don’t think Random Guy speaks Turkish. We get to the Sultanahmet and I start pointing at signs for Yerebatan and the Cistern.  I point straight ahead at the Ayasofya because I can walk home from there. There’s more muttering of “Hotel Han Hotel Han” and “Allah Allah,” and supplications to sky. By now I’m the one who is praying… I really want out of this cab but I cannot get him to stop. I point once more to the sign for Ayasofya which he takes literally, and starts driving across the pedestrian plaza to the mosque. NO!

Finally, after eight stops for directions and a countless litanies of “Hotel Han Hotel Han Allah Allah,” we arrive at the Hotel Han. His meter says more than TL35 but he only charges me what he had quoted. I tell him “Good Job” and we both laugh, although which of us was the greater relieved would be a pretty hard call…

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