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Inside Hamam Issue 3

Inside Hamam Issue 3

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Hamam Issue 3 just dropped—and it's all about the spirit of getting wet. This new issue is dedicated to how and where we worship the life-giving element that is water, and the virtuosity of wetness. We're also excited to present an exclusive excerpt from Issue 3, "Bathing Like Rumi" by Mikkel Aaland:

Bathing Like Rumi

by Mikkel Aaland

 

 

Bathe in the splendor of your own Light.
—Rumi

 

I am in Bursa, a couple-hour ferry ride from Istanbul, across the Sea of Marmara. It’s the sixth day of filming an episode of Perfect Sweat featuring the Turkish hamam. My cohost and guide Liz Kurumlu and I have just finished a scene at the shop of Levent Aldemir, who owns and runs one of the best-known hand-woven hamam towel (peshtemal) shops in all of Turkey.

We leave with our film crew trailing behind us, carrying their equipment and shopping bags full of peshtemals, soaps, scrubbers, and other accessories from Ademir’s shop. As we walk past one of the ubiquitous Bursa mosques, I turn to Liz: “We have shot great stuff here and in Istanbul: the bachelorette henna party at the re- cently renovated Hürrem Sultan hamamı; the fashion shoot at the Sultan’s bath in Çırağan Palace; the soldier’s going-away party at the Çemberlitaş hamamı; a pledge party at the Çukurcuma ham- amı. I think we have the social aspect of the hamam well covered. But we are missing something.”

Liz looks concerned.

“Hamams are almost always located near a mosque for a reason, right?” I continue. “There is a spiritual side we haven’t explored.”

Moments later Liz and our Turkish producers huddle together next to a bubbling water fountain. One of the team makes a phone call, and a few minutes later, I am told, we are in luck. The stars have aligned and we have found the perfect person to instruct me in the spiritual ways of the hamam: Nail Kesova, a Sufi master.

Sufism, I know, is a mystical Islamic belief that promotes a direct personal experience of God through elaborate dance rituals and music. One of the most famous Sufis, and one of my heroes, is the thirteenth-century poet and mystic Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī. Rumi, as he is best known in the West, was born to Persian-speaking parents in what is now Afghanistan but spent a good part of his life in what is now Turkey, where he died in 1273 CE. He is also the founder of the Order of the Whirling Dervishes.

“After years of training, Kesova was declared a sheikh, a Sufi leader, and a whirling dervish by a direct descendant of Rumi,” explains Liz. “He happens to be in Bursa and has agreed to show you, on camera, the proper way to bathe and prepare yourself for spiritual ablution.”

I nod enthusiastically. I remember that many of Rumi’s various stories and poems are set inside bathhouses. Rumi often used bathing and washing as metaphors for spiritual purification, like this line:

 

Be melting snow
Wash yourself with yourself.

 

I couldn’t be more pleased. I am going bathe in the spirit of Rumi!

Later that evening I meet Kesova at the Kervansaray Thermal hotel, where our crew is staying. He has a full white beard and sparkling eyes and perfectly fits my image of a whirling dervish; he even resembles some depictions of Rumi in miniatures. He speaks slowly and carefully in understandable English. In a small waiting room adjacent to the bath entrance, he reminds me that cleanliness of both the physical and the spiritual self was also critical to the founder of Islam, the prophet Mohammed.

Back in the seventh century, Mohammed and his followers adopted the ubiquitous Roman bathhouses to their own needs. They kept the basic heating method (hypocaust) but shrank the giant thermae architecturally and often placed them adjacent to a mosque. The word hamam is from Arabic, and means “spreader of warmth.”

I ask Kesova if Mohammed truly had a special fondness for cats because they clean themselves. And does that explain why modern Istanbul is full of feral cats, running around with impunity? Kesova smiles and nods.

At this point, we move to the men’s changing room, leaving Liz behind. We disrobe and wrap ourselves in peshtemals, with Kesova deliberately wrapping the towel around his waist from the right to left in the Sufi manner. This particular hamam is heated by one of Bursa’s many thermal hot springs, and instead of a heated slab of raised tile in the middle of the room there is a large circular pool of hot mineral water. A typical hamam has a heat source under the marble floor that channels the heat evenly throughout the room via flues built into the walls. The hypocaust method was invented by the ancient Romans and is still considered one of the most efficient ways to heat a room.

As the camera crew sets up to shoot, Kesova and I sit near each other on the marble benches around the perimeter of the hamam. We share a water basin and individual spigots. The crew is ready to roll.

“First, before we do anything,” says Kesova. “We need to clear our minds of negative thoughts and acknowledge our intention of purifying our heart for the pleasure of Allah. By doing this we show God our intent to be clean.” We can express our intent out loud, he adds, or quietly in our mind.

The ablution that follows is called ghusl, or full-body ritual purification. An abbreviated version, called wudu, is done prior to all rituals and prayers. It is often carried out before special religious days, after spilling semen, or by women after menstruation. Generally, there is no difference in the way men and women perform ghusl or wudu.

“First we wash our hands with clean water, followed by our mouth using our right hand, passing water over it three times,” explains Kesova. “Then we move on to washing our nose. By cleaning our nose this way, we are opening our senses to the smell of heaven. After that we wash our entire body with water from feet to head, not leaving any part dry.”

I followed his actions until Kesova was finished. He stood up, dried off, and returned to the dressing room. I remained behind, slipping into the hot pool in the middle of the room. In its gentle warmth, with sweat pouring from my face and shoulders, I took a few moments to reflect on what I had just experienced. The room was buzzing with activity as the camera crew prepared to leave, and yet I felt calm and unhurried. All my attention was focused on the moment, and I felt connected to something much larger than myself. Kesova had evoked Allah in his prayers. As a nonreligious person, I translate the word “god” as love or cosmic conscience, or even “beloved,” a word Rumi often used in his poetry. I suspect they all lead to the same place: an acknowledgment of the universal energy that surrounds and connects us all.

Bathing with purpose and spiritual intent had transformed a routine cleansing into something extraordinary and profound. With an open heart, I felt thankful for this opportunity and ready for whatever came next.

 

Oh Beloved,
take away what I want.
Take away what I do.
Take away what I need.
Take away everything
that takes me from you
—Rumi

 

Get your copy of Hamam Issue 3 → 

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