Thursday, July 11, 2013

Steamed, Scrubbed, Beaten....and It's All Good

Last night after a long and fabulous bus ride, we rolled into the town of Safronbolu.  This city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and after walking around it today, it's not hard to see why.  Safronbolu was a major stop on the caravan trade routes up to the beginning of the 20th century.  The architecture built here influenced the rest of the empire.  Its name comes from the spice saffron which is grown, harvested, and processed here.

We walked around the rough cobblestone streets of Safronbolu today, and we would up at an imposing structure for lunch.  Inside its thick walls, everything was cool and dark.  Narrow windows like arrow slits let in just enough light from the outside to give that dim glow usually more associated with candles. This building was the Cinci Inn, a fortress where the camel trains could come and have safety and rest.

When we finished lunch, we picked our way once again over the cobbles to an Ottoman house about 200 years old that has been restored and made into a museum.  For the first time, I understood what the harem space is supposed to look like and how the household functioned.  In many ways, the harem space is just a formalization of what was happening in homes in the west.  The kitchen and maybe a sitting room were considered to be "women's spaces."  The harem, so much eroticised by the West, is actually only supposed to be a stronger version of this.  In the home of the average family, usually a very large and extended group together under one roof, it's not a place of soap opera intrigue.  Instead, the "world of women" and the "world of men" were kept separate, something that many other cultures of the time were doing anyway either de jure or de facto.

After I had this little revelation, it was time to head to the hotel to grab our stuff for a visit to the hamam.  There are hamams all over Turkey and the Middle East in general.  This one, the Cinci Hamam, has apparently been getting travelers clean since 1645.  Today, I became a part of this long tradition.

From the outside, the building itself is inviting.  Curved domes are covered in terracotta red tiles.  Set into the domes are small glass bubbles which channel light into the hammam without sacrificing the heat inside or compromising the privacy of those within.  As with so many things in life, our group split into men and women, and we went into separate sides of the baths.  I stripped down, wrapped the famous hamam towels around myself, and headed into the main chamber of the bath with everyone else.  We sat on marble benches and ran hot and cold water from brass taps into small marble cisterns from which we dipped up water and cleaned ourselves.  The we sat, enjoyed the wet steam that enveloped us, and waited for our turn at what came next.

There were four women working on everyone who came into the hamam.  They were stripped down to minimal clothing because of the heat and their activity.  Some worked on the huge stone dodecagon in the center of the main dome.  Others had a one person marble table in one of the three side domes.  When my time came, I went in and was laid face down on the table.  Then the woman who was taking care of me proceeded to get me cleaner than I have probably ever been in my whole life.

I was scrubbed.  I was soaped.  A thing that must be the king of the loofahs was used.  After that, I was rinsed and the massage portion of events began.  Unlike the massages I'd gotten in Japan that had hurt, this one was active but not deep-tissue.  It felt lovely to a body that has been running around too much and siting folded up on planes, trains, and busses for too long.  When I was done, I was rinsed off again, this time with a couple of buckets of cold water and told to wash my hair.  I did, and I simply sat for a few minutes to absorb the last of the heat from the marble.

After that, I wrapped the towel back around me and went back to the little locker in which I'd locked up my clothing.  Reluctantly, I pulled my clothing back on and went into the now-cool afternoon.  I looked at my skin.  I'd been scrubbed so clean that I literally had lost freckles the ever-present sun has brought out lately.  I felt supremely tranquil.  My friends and I headed off into the twisting streets of the Old City area to see if anything in the ancient shops caught our attention.  We finished the day off with Turkish chai, now one of my favorite things in the whole world, and conversation.

Safronbolu was once again a place of tremendous care and hospitality to tired wanderers.  It's sort of amazing that despite the change of times, that function has remained the same.  If you'd like to know more about Safronbolu, you can go here to explore the UNESCO World Heritage website for it.

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