Trip Start Jun 02, 2008
143Trip End Jun 09, 2009
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Where I stayed
The Sema (Whirling Dervish Ceremony)
We take our seats in the waiting room for Platform 1, the terminus of the Orient Express. The European-Orientally decorated room has been set up with chairs laid out in a horseshoe around a central performance area.
After a short wait in the softly lit room, we see the group of eight Sufi musicians, or mutrip, take the stage. They play the ney, a soft sounding blown flute; the kanun, like a zither; the kemence, a bowed instrument, like the Chinese huqin; the oud, like a lute; and the kudum, two small malletted drums. Behind the instrumentalists stands a chorus of three men.
The music starts in a jerky seven-four meter. As the vocalists begin singing in unison, sharing the melody with the ney and the kanun, the beat changes to a more followable four-four.
After some time, five black-cloaked dervishes, or semazens, enter the room. On their heads they wear tall beige sikkes. The hats are meant to represent tombstones, to symbolize the death of the semazens' egos.
After spreading lambskins on the floor for themselves, with an additional lambskin, dyed red, in the middle, the semazens bow to one another, and one at a time neatly drop their black cloaks on the white skins. One by one they begin to slowly spin counterclockwise, forming a circle which itself moves in a counterclockwise direction. Their arms, initially clasped across their chests, slowly spread; their right hands reaching, palm up, to receive from God, their left hands extending down to give to humanity, keeping nothing for themselves. They begin to spin faster and faster. Eventually, when their spinning has reached a fevered rate, stirring a chilly breeze, they slow and stop, gather together once again and begin spinning anew. They repeat this process four times. At all times they seem controlled, but on the fourth iteration they whirl with a muted fanaticism.
When they are finished, they bow to one another and gather their robes and sheepskins with what seems like reluctance, leaving the room one by one.
We leave in silence and in awe at having been a part of a beautiful religious experience.
The Turkish Bath (Hamam)
We arrive at Cagaloglu Hamam, a sixteenth century Ottoman building tucked away in Istanbul's downtown neighbourhood of Cagaloglu. Upon entry to the lobby, Bo and I are sorted into the women's and men's halves of the Hamam. After we pay, a brusque, efficient man gives me a key, some rubber sandals, and a small rectangle of cotton, a pestemal. I had worried that this experience might smack of a tourist trap, but my host's abruptness assures me that this is an authentically Turkish experience. He directs me to a small room, which my key will lock, and it is there that I am to leave my clothes and belongings and change into my pestemal. I do as instructed and return to the main reception area, hoping with each step that the pestemal stays in place. The gruff maitre d' shows me the way to the bathing chamber (camekan) and I enter it.
Instantly, a blast of steam wallops me in the face, rendering my glasses useless. I am left with the options of keeping them on my face and wandering around half-blindly or taking them off... and wandering around half-blindly. I opt for the latter and try to take in my surroundings as well as my myopia permits.
The central "belly stone" is approximately six metres in diameter and heated by an unseen fire below. Surrounding it are dozens of individual basins, each with a bowl and hot and cold faucets.
Upon the initial shock of entering, I immediately forget everything I had read about the etiquette of hamams. I remember certain strictures against splashing those beside you, particularly if they are performing pre-prayer ablutions and being splashed by someone else's water would require them to restart their washing ritual, but for the most part I am lost.
I decide that it would be safest to like down on the "belly stone" like a few others are doing. I lie on my back, close my eyes and feel the warmth of the stone permeate my skin. When I open my eyes, I am captivated by the beauty of the dome above, perhaps eighteen metres in diameter. Pieces of blue glass are scattered throughout it, like so many indigo stars. It is an exquisite effect that is not lost on someone even as shortsighted as me.
Just as I feel that I might fall asleep, I am tapped on the leg. I look up and a rotund, hairy man in pestemal communicates to me that it is time for my massage. I roll over and carefully readjust my pestemal. My mustachioed new friend then attempts to push all the muscles in my body out the tips of my fingers and toes by systematically kneading them with all his strength. I feel like dough under a rolling pin, like a bony heap of laundry being wrung out to dry. It feels wonderful! This painful, yet thoroughly refreshing, massage continues for twenty minutes.
After this, my potbellied masseur leads me over to one of the basins where he is to wash me. He launches bowl after bowl of warm water at me, then sits me down and takes out a rough, soapy glove. With this he scrubs off all of the dirt on my body along with the epidermis to which it is attached. At one point, he shows me the glove (quite proudly!) and all of the bits of skin that are on it. After this superlative exfoliation, he again pummels me with bowls of water and I am reborn, clean like I've never been before - or certainly not in the past five months!
I lie for a little while longer on the "belly stone" and then leave the camekan. Upon exit, I am covered in a few towels to dry and then consume copious amounts of Turkish delight, accompanied by an Efes beer, while waiting for Bo to emerge from her half of the hamam.