I Survived a Turkish Bath

I saw the sign for the Turkish bath from a block away. It pointed down a dark alley. It looked kind of sketchy, but when in Istanbul, do as the Turks do, I thought.

turkish bath
The oldest bath in Istanbul.

The Tarihi Galatasaray Hamami bath started in 1481. It is the oldest Turkish bath in Istanbul. Not knowing what to expect, and ready for anything (well excluding getting naked of course), I pushed my way through the door. I was met by the manager of the establishment, a friendly gentleman who explained that I could leave my valuables in the locked changing room after I disrobed. I took off my clothes, wrapped a thin towel around my waist, and shuffled into the common area on wooden clogs that were too small for my feet.

“Please, go with Omar,” said the manager as he gestured to a man walking towards me.

Omar Sharif was a pudgy middle-aged man with large hands. He was wearing a towel and clogs like me. He looked eerily like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the notorious Al-Quaeda mastermind jailed in Guantanamo Bay.

“Come, come,” he said to me in his limited, broken English.

He led me into a large circular room with a domed ceiling. In the middle of the room was a giant marble slab.  The room was hot and humid, not quite as hot as a sauna, but close.

“Lie down,” said Omar as he gave me another towel and a pillow for my head. He then disappeared through a door.

Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, started in 537 AD.

I laid down on the hard marble, but soon relaxed as the heat seeped into my bones. My pores opened up and I started to sweat.  The grime that had accumulated on my skin as I had walked around the dirty city of Istanbul all day started to loosen in the sweat. I got drowsy from the heat and almost nodded off.

I was relaxed, but I was ready in case anyone attacked me.  OK, I was just dreaming about that scene in the movie called Eastern Promises where Viggo Mortenson fights some other Russian mobsters.

After a while Omar came back. While I laid down on the marble with just the scrunched up towel covering my groin, he starting rubbing me all over with a rough sponge mitt. He rubbed my skin very hard, scraping over and over. Removing dead skin I guess. Either that or this was some form of torture in the old Ottoman Empire.

Galata Bridge
The Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn.

Next, he started massaging the muscles in my arms and legs.  Hey, I thought, this feels kind of good. I normally don’t like people touching me and never get a massage. He had very strong hands and kneaded my muscles over and over. This was fine, until he starting digging his thumb deep into a muscle and pulling down the length of the muscle. He attacked my calves, my hamstrings, and my quadriceps. I grunted with pain. It was all I could do to not cry out like a little girl and start wailing. But, I couldn’t let him see me act like anything but a tough guy. I was in a Turkish bath, for crying out loud.

Wait, I was in a Turkish bath and I did actually want to cry out loud!

All during this torture session Omar sang songs and chanted to himself in Turkish or something. He must really enjoy his job. He gets to torture people with his strong thumbs.

Hookahs for sale in the Grand Bazaar.

Finally the “massage” was over. He took me over to the corner of the room and made me sit on a marble step. He then grabbed a big sponge mitt and soaped me all over. Next, he grabbed the top of my head to hold me still while he dumped buckets of cold water over me. More painful massage followed, including some half-nelson arm twists. Please don’t accidentally break my neck, Omar!

More soap, more cold water. The wash and rinse cycle was repeated several times. This was followed by more hard scrubbing. Omar kept singing to himself, stopping every once in a while to see if I was ok. Once in a while he would stop working me over and dump cold water over his own head. I guess he was working up a sweat and needed to cool off.

By the end I was certainly clean and went into the next room to take a cold shower for a cool down. I felt good overall, except for the bruises in my thighs from his massive thumbs.

Steve in the Turkish bath
After the Turkish bath.
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The Lost City of Ephesus

Temple ruins in Ephesus

Our new friend Giljan was eager to show us around the ancient ruins of the lost city of Ephesus in Turkey. Sure, it was her job as tour guide, but she was young and fairly new at her job and was still enthusiastic.  She kept mixing up the apostles John and Paul.  I cut her some slack considering that she’s a Muslim.

She met us at the port of Kusadasi and her driver took us 20 minutes inland to the entry gate high in hills near the city of Selcuk.  Ephesus was a thriving metropolis of approximately 250,000 people in the first century A.D.  It was largely destroyed by a massive earthquake and the ruins of the city were covered by dirt for centuries until partially excavated in the 20th century.

Temple ruins in Ephesus
Excavated temple ruins in Ephesus, Turkey

Entering the high gate and walking downhill through the main street of the town was awe-inspiring.  The wealthiest people of the time lived in a sophisticated fashion with many conveniences. Some of these people lived in fancy condos built into a hillside.  The walls were covered with painted scenes and the surviving floor mosaic patterns were very intricate.

Excavated remains of ancient condos in Ephesus
The ancient condos had painted walls and fancy mosaic floors

The leaders of the city owned slaves.  Of course the slaves did all the work, including cooking for the leader’s families.  Most of the condos did not have kitchens.  The food was “take-out” food prepared elsewhere and delivered by slaves.  The condos had private bathrooms for the women with indoor plumbing.  The men went down the street to a communal bathroom.  In winter, slaves were commanded to sit down and warm up the marble of the cold toilet prior to the master’s bowel movement!

toilet seats in Ephesus
Warm my seat for me!

One of the most important buildings in Ephesus was the library.  The library contained thousands of scrolls with all of the knowledge of the area.  In Roman times, Marc Antony pillaged the library by shipping all of the scrolls to Egypt as a present to Cleopatra.

library facade in Ephesus
The facade of the Library in Ephesus

Since Ephesus was such a large city, it was the major trading center for the entire eastern Mediterranean region.  The marketplace was a bustling place where goods were bought and sold from all over the ancient world.

Market gates in Ephesus
Gates to the marketplace in Ephesus

Just down the street from the market, a woman’s footprint is etched into marble on the side of the road.  It is the image of left foot, and there are two intersecting lines above it.  Farther down this road was the port of Ephesus on the Aegean Sea (the Sea is now eight kilometers away due to falling water levels in the Sea over the centuries).  Sailors and traders would leave their ships and walk up this road to the big city.  The footprint informed them that the brothel was on the left side of the road up ahead by the intersection.

The great amphitheater where Paul preached as described in the Bible is near the end of the road in Ephesus.  The amphitheater holds 25,000 people and is still in use for concerts.  They only allow classical and jazz now.  A few years ago a rock concert was held and vibrations from the loudspeakers caused a small landslide of part of the upper portion of the ampitheater.  That’s rock and roll!

Great Ampitheater in Ephesus, Turkey
The Great Ampitheater in Ephesus where Paul preached

After the tour of Ephesus we stopped at a outdoor café for a traditional Turkish lunch.  First came various salads with fresh bread, followed by grilled chicken skewers and meatballs.  Desert was a plateful of fresh fruit.  Giljan told us about her city of Selcuk and attending a university quite far away.

“Would you like to see how Turkish carpets are made?  They are a specialty of this region.” she asked.

“OK. I have no idea how that’s done.” I said.

We were driven to a local weaver’s co-operative where rural women were taught how to weave carpets.  A first demonstration showed how silk is harvested from thimble-sized pods.  The silkworm eats the leaves of a Mulberry tree and spins silk into a pod.  It must be an enormous amount of work for the silkworm.  The pods are harvested and put into a bath.  A worker teases the pod with a brush to get the outer silk thread of the pod.  A dozen or more of these first threads are gathered into one starting point and hooked to a spinning machine.  The spinning machine unravels all of the pods at once and combines all of the individual threads to make silk yarn.

The silk yarn can be dyed and are then woven by hand on a backing matrix of threads made from cotton or wool.  The work is typically done by a woman who sits hunched over the loom for months on end to make a single carpet. The price of the resulting carpet depends on the complexity of the pattern, the material used (lamb’s wool, sheep’s wool, goat’s wool, or silkworm), and the density of the weave.

making carpet in Turkey
This woman is making a carpet for me

Back at the port, as I was walking through the shopping area, I noticed this sign.  I’m not quite sure what it means!

Turkish watches for sale
I'll take two in case one breaks
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The Grand Tour of Europe

The Grand Tour of Europe

From the 17th through the 19th centuries, many upper class British young men traveled a traditional path through Europe called the Grand Tour.  The Grand Tour served as an educational rite of passage whereby the traveler learned about culture, history, architecture, and the arts. The traveler became knowledgeable about classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and was usually accompanied by a learned guide.

The Grand Tour of Europe
The Traditional Grand Tour of Europe

The itinerary for the British traveler started in Dover, England, crossed the English Channel to France or Belgium, and then continued down through the middle of Europe to Italy. Finishing in either Rome or Naples, the traveler might take a ship back to England.  Grand Tours lasted from several months to several years.

Grand Tours are a thing of the past.  The days of the landed gentry wandering the capitals of Europe seeking knowledge and life experiences are long gone. Instead, today we have gap years, study abroad programs, hippie trails, and sabbaticals.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that offers an eight week sabbatical after every seven years of service.  Add in three weeks of vacation and I don’t have to sit in a little grey cube staring at a computer screen for almost three months.  My sabbatical is fast approaching.  I have looked forward to it for at least a couple of years now.  I’m going to make the most of it.

I can’t do the Grand Tour.  There is not enough time and money.  But I can try to do some portions of it.  In reverse.  I’m starting in Rome, Italy.  My plan is to detour first to Greece, Turkey, and Israel.  After returning to Rome, my Grand Tour will take me to Milan, Lake Como, the Berner Oberland, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, London, Bath, and the Cotswolds.

I invite you to follow along.

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