As the lather ran down my skin, I could see two young women lying on the göbektaşı – a heated marble platform – at the centre of the hammam, with dreamy smiles on their faces. There were six of us in the sıcaklık, the hot room of Istanbul’s Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammam on a day in late August last year, and the only sound came from the mittens being used to scrub the dead skin from our nearly naked bodies. Sunlight filtered through holes in the domed ceiling, and I could hear one of the women whisper to her companion that she wanted the moment to last forever.
“It was like we were in paradise,” said Maryam and Moroug, cousins originally from Egypt, when we met afterwards to drink jasmine tea in the hammam lounge. But such experiences have become increasingly rare since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. In March 2020, baths were closed by the Turkish government along with most other public venues. In the summer, when lockdown measures were relaxed and hammams were allowed to reopen, many opted to stay closed.
Hüseyin and Ali Yılmaz, a father and son duo who own Istanbul’s oldest public baths, the Ağa Hammam, told Inside Turkey that only around 30 per cent of hammams reopened between the beginning of June when restrictions were relaxed and the end of November when they were reimposed amid the second wave of the virus. Many owners simply decided that they wouldn’t be able to make sufficient profits.
“The number of customers decreased drastically,” Ali Yılmaz said. “We lost 75 per cent of our customers. Not having more than 30 visitors per day is only enough to cover the costs.” Yılmaz said that they were able to afford to keep their business open because they own the premises, but that rental costs encouraged others to stay closed.
Social distancing measures introduced by the government contributed to the decline in customers. When they were open, baths required advanced booking and had strict limits on visitor numbers, as well as the length of time people could spend inside. Face scrubs were banned, under instructions from Turkey’s interior ministry.
The regulations weren’t the only problem, however.
“Unfortunately, people are afraid of the virus,” said Naif Karaca, head of the Baths and Hammams Chamber – an industry association – in Izmir, a city on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Karaca was adamant that public baths were safe.
“Our hammams are the enemy of the coronavirus,” he said. “What does the health minister say? ‘Wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds.’ In a Turkish bath, you will be covered with soap and bubbles head-to-toe.”
The World Health Organisation recommends frequent hand-washing, as well as avoiding mixing with people in poorly-ventilated indoor spaces, among its precautions for reducing the spread of the coronavirus.
Özden Çam, a 60-year-old pensioner from the central Turkish province of Eskisehir who used to visit her local hammam every week, was not put off by the health risk. She told Inside Turkey that she went back on the very first day it reopened.
“I was at the door of the hammam at 6am,” she said. “When I was a child, our only option for bathing was coming to the hammam since we didn’t have a private bathroom with running hot water in our house. I feel relaxed when I’m there, and during the ban, I missed it a lot.”
Modern infrastructure, including running hot water, has decreased the need for hammams – once the only option for a proper scrub available to most Turkish people – but plenty have survived. The historic baths attract tourists, as well as young middle-class people looking to reconnect with tradition.
“Being in a Turkish bath is a totally different experience,” said Nilüfer Şahinler, manager of the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammam. “One of our foreign visitors was almost 75 years old. She cried afterwards and told us that no-one had washed her since childhood. The hammam is not just about getting your body clean. It is also about nurturing the soul.”
The Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, built between 1578 and 1583 to serve sailors in the Ottoman navy, is one of Istanbul’s most historic baths, and was reopened in 2012 after a seven-year restoration. The building was designed by the great Ottoman architect Sinan and is famous for its majestic dome.
While Şahinler spoke to Inside Turkey, during my visit in November, staff wearing masks and visors raced back and forth beneath the red-brick roof.
“Even if customers have concerns before they arrive,” Şahinler said, “they vanish after they see the precautions we’ve taken.”
Leman Doğan, a 30-year-old advertising copywriter, was a new visitor. “It was the first time I relaxed during the pandemic,” she said. “The presence of soap and water decreased my anxiety.”
Doğan laughed guiltily. “I know it’s selfish, but with fewer customers because of the pandemic, I felt luckier because the experience was more exclusive.”
In an August visit to another historic but less touristy Istanbul bathhouse, the Valide Atik Hammam, six women were sitting as far away as possible from one another.
“Coming here is almost a ritual, especially for older customers,” said Kemikkıran Kadriye, a masseuse who works at the hammam. “It’s not possible to get clean with showers alone.”
Kadriye said that neighbourhood baths provided an escape from the stresses of the pandemic for women from lower-income families.
Gülşen Acar, a 42-year-old secretary, whose two children were stuck at home during the summer, agreed.
“I love my children like every other mother,” she said. “But sometimes enough is enough. Having a place like this is great. Here I can be alone, feel the hot air and rest.”
For many people, visiting the hammam last summer was a way of doing something traditional in a frightening new situation, while for those who worked there it was a way of maintaining a living.
Then the second wave arrived. On the last day of November 2020, the Turkish government announced new restrictions, including the closure of the baths.
Speaking by phone after the announcement, Şahinler told Inside Turkey that customers at the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammam were not happy about the decision.
“But it is good for all our sakes,” she said. “The risk was getting higher. We can wait until the pandemic is over or under control. Then we can start to host our guests again.”
In early December, the street on which the Valide Atik Hammam has stood for almost 500 years was quiet. Kadriye had just been inside the empty building, to check if everything was OK.
“No one got infected here,” she said with a little bit of bitterness in her voice. “Our place was clean enough, and everybody was happy in here.”
While the baths are closed, Kadriye depends on the government’s short-time working payment, an emergency measure introduced in response to the pandemic.
“When they were open, hammams gave us a window to breathe through,” she said as she locked up. “Now that window is closed.”