During several walking adventures into the Sultanahmet district, we would often pass the Hafiz Mustafa store, its display windows brimming with Turkish delight, baclava and various other pastries and sweets. It began operation as a bakery and confectionery in 1864 and on more than one occasion we stopped for some Turkish tea and baclava or to purchase a roll or two of pistachio infused Turkish delight.
Across the water in Karakoy, we visited a shop that has been around for even longer. Founded in 1820, Karakoy Gulluoglu specialise in baclava and are renowned in Istanbul for being one of the best makers of the traditional sweet. While the history of baclava is not that well known, it is thought to have developed in its current form in the kitchens of Topaki Palace in Sultanahmet.
I purchased a small tray of different varieties of baclava to munch on the way to Istanbul Modern, the city’s contemporary art museum. It consists of two large floors, the lower one housing the annual biennale which I didn’t find that interesting and the upper floor containing a permanent collection by mostly Turkish artists. There were some fascinating works of art and some really interesting installation pieces. Many offered depictions of a world troubled by conflict, intolerance and human suffering. One of the most striking works for me was a mixed media piece called ‘Ash-1’ by Turkish artist Balkan Naci Islimyeli. The description provided with the artwork read as follows:
‘“Ash-1” from the series “Air-Water-Earth-Fire” manifests the artist’s worries in the face of a world that is dying out. The footprints in the ash spread across the surface of the painting and the swing in the shape of a bough that hangs from a piece of rope symbolise the loss of humanitarian values.’
On the way back from the gallery, Clare stopped at a street side stall and bought us each a fresh pomegranate juice. Being October, it’s peak pomegranate season and juice vendors are everywhere. The dark red juice is more sour than sweet but tastes refreshing and has good nutritional properties. Other popular street vendors sell roasted cobs of corn, roasted chestnuts and the iconic Simit; a delicious circular bread encrusted with sesame seeds.
We also visited several large markets in Istanbul. The biggest was the Grand Bazaar in Sultanahmet – a maze of undercover alleyways consuming several blocks – that left us more bamboozled than satisfied. Like most ‘markets’ these days, it was made up of stalls arranged in a seemingly repeating pattern in terms of their appearance and the products they sell. The Egyptian market in Emininou was slightly better, because it was smaller and less confusing. The best though was the market in Kadikoy on the Asian side, mainly because it specialised in food. It had lots of fresh produce, fish and meat and all kinds of spices, nuts and sweets.
After walking around the market, we visited a Turkish bath in Kadiköy called Aziziye Hamam. While there are much larger, more glamorous and better appointed hamams in Istanbul, we wanted to try a place used more by locals than tourists.
Men and women bath separately so Clare went through one entrance and I went through another. The staff didn’t speak English so I had no idea what to expect and tried to follow their non-verbal gestures as best I could. First, I was directed to a chair in the foyer where I could remove my shoes and put on a pair of water sandals. I was then given some towels and a key to a small change room. After emerging in my swimming trunks, I was taken through a door into the main bath area consisting of several warm rooms lined entirely with light grey marble. Within the space was a ‘hot’ room fed by a continuous supply of hot dry air. This was the start point for the Turkish bath experience.
There were two other men in the hot room, both of Scandinavian appearance, perspiring freely and eyeing the sand running through an hourglass near the door that indicated how long they had to go. It wasn’t long before I felt perspiration pouring off me and after enduring the intense heat for as long as I could I walked out into the much cooler air of the bath house. I sat down on a large marble slab and doused myself repeatedly in cold water from faucets, equally spaced around the perimeter. Not long after, one of the staff beckoned me into an adjoining room.
I sat down on a marble bench while a very large Turkish man dressed only with a towel around his waist started dousing me with very warm water. On his right hand was a special mitt that looked like a scourer. He used this to scrub my upper body and then my legs. He also used a technique of firmly slapping my back and limbs to perhaps loosen the muscles and aid relaxation. It was like a shiatsu massage and a body scrub combined into one. At times it felt uncomfortable but only in that way you know is also doing you good.
After completing what I later understood was the ‘warm rinse’ I was directed to lie down on a wet marble slab while another man did the actual ‘body wash’. He began by applying a generous amount of soap to my upper body and legs and proceeded with very firm hands to massage my limbs from top to bottom. He too would employ the heavy slapping technique as well as more chiropractic manipulations that made my spine crack in several places. After the body wash I had a shower and returned to the foyer to get changed. I felt very relaxed and refreshed and when I met up with Clare at a coffee shop afterwards, she described a similar experience.
I realised later that Turkish baths are Islamic variants of the older Roman baths and rarely incorporate pools of water in their design. The Islamic faith deems it more appropriate to wash the body under running water rather than immersing the body in a pool. This full-body cleansing is one of two forms of ablutions in Islam before the daily acts of prayer. It is the reason hamams are often located close to mosques. The other form of ablution is to wash just the hands, face and feet and mosques have special marble basins and faucets specifically for this purpose.