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The number of hamams in Istanbul mushroomed in the 18th century when the realization hit that they were big business. Mahmut I had the Cagaloglu Hamami built to finance the construction of his library near the Ayasofya, but new constructions were limited later that century because the hamams were using up the city's resources of water and wood. Only about 20 hamams have survived.

The most visited hamams today are the palatial Çemberlitas Hamami, Vezirhan Cad. 8 (off Divanyolu at the Column of Constantine; tel. 0212/522-7974; www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr; 55TL for the traditional bath, perfunctory massage, and kese, a scrubbing using an abrasive mitt [they have a luxury service for 95TL that lasts about 45 minutes]; 35TL bath only; MasterCard, Visa; daily 6am-midnight with separate sections), which was based on a design by Sinan, and the 18th-century Cagaloglu Hamami, Yerebatan Cad. at Ankara Cad. (tel. 0212/522-2424; www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr; 80TL bath and kese; 100TL if you opt for the "Oriental luxury" treatment; 40TL entry only; daily 7am-10pm for men, 8am-8pm for women), which allegedly saw the bare bottoms of Franz Liszt, Edward VIII, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Florence Nightingale, and even had a part as an extra in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

A better value is the recently restored Süleymaniye Hamami, Mimar Sinan Cad. 20 (tel. 0212/519-5569; www.suleymaniyehamami.com; daily 10am-midnight), part of the Süleymaniye mosque complex and another architectural and social welfare wonder of Sinan and Süleyman the Magnificent. Pickup and drop-off from your hotel is included in the price of admission, which includes the massage and kese (35€ for treatment per person; call to see if your hotel is in their range). One caveat: This hamam is coed.

In Beyoglu, the Tarihi Galatasaray Hamami, Sütterazi Sok. 24 (from Istiklal Cad. in front of the Galatasaray High School, it's the second street to the left of the gate; tel. 0212/249-4242 the men's side; tel. 0212/249-4342 the women's side; www.galatasarayhamami.com; 40TL admission plus 5TL if you want the massage and kese; daily 7am-10pm for men, 8am-8pm for women), was built by Beyazit II in 1481 as part of the Galata Sarayi school complex. It's the least touristy of the historic hamams mentioned here (does John Travolta's recent visit support or belie this?), and indeed, sometimes locals working in the area will pop in for a quickie.

Probably the most spectacular hamam is the decommissioned Haseki Sultan Hamami, in Sultanahmet Park. Built by Sinan in 1557 on a symmetrical plan that provided two separate sections of identical domed halls, the hamam was decommissioned when it was found that the elongated layout resulted in too much heat loss. For the past decade or so, it was used as a carpet exhibition center for the state-owned Dösim group of shops. Currently undergoing restoration, rumor has it that the Haseki Sultan Hamami will be restored to its original function as a public bath.

The oldest and largest hamam in Istanbul is the Tahtakale Hamami, dating to the second half of the 15th century. This splendid double bath managed to survive -- only barely -- the earthquake of 1894, the fire of 1911, and the indignity of serving as a storehouse for cheese in the 1980s. It has now been put to good use not as a bath, but as the Istanbul Kahvehanesi (Tahtakale Hamam Çarsisi, Uzun Çarsisi Cad., Eminönü; tel. 0212/514-4042), serving cups of the strong black Turkish brew in the shadow of marble arches and repurposed fountains.

If you're looking for luxury and personal attention, more along the lines of a modern-day spa treatment, you'll want to visit a hamam at a hotel instead. My personal favorites are Les Ottomans, Çiragan Palace, the Ritz-Carlton, and the Sofa Hotel. (Note: For any hamam treatment, a 10% tip is customary).

A Punishment Fit for the Crime? -- While coed baths are common in Turkey, under the Ottomans, the penalty imposed on a man found in the woman's section of a hamam was death.

Steam Heat: Taking the Hamam

In characteristic socially conscious fashion, the Selçuks were the ones to adopt the Roman and Byzantine tradition of public bathing and treat it like a public work. Lacking running water at home, society embraced the hamam, which evolved into not only a place to cleanse body and soul, but a social phenomenon as well. Even the accouterments of the hamam took on symbols of status: wooden clogs inlaid with mother-of-pearl, towels embroidered with gold thread, and so on. Men gathered to talk about politics, sports, and women, while the ladies kept an eagle eye out for suitable wives for their sons.

The utility of the hamam evolved and fell out of daily use, probably because the neighborhood ones have a reputation for being dirty, and the historic ones come with a hefty admission charge. As of late, though, views of the hamam have undergone a complete renaissance, not least of all owing to the arrival of über-deluxe hamam spas such as the ones in the Four Seasons the Bosphorus, the Çiragan Palace, and Hotel Les Ottomans. Istanbul's luxury hamam scene is a far cry from the perfunctory treatment received at one of the historically touristy hamams.

What to expect? The main entrance of a Turkish bath opens up to a camekan, a central courtyard lined with changing cubicles surrounding an ornamental marble fountain. Visitors are presented with the traditional pestamal, a checkered cloth worn like a sarong (up higher for women). Valuables are secured in a private locker, provided for each customer, although it's a good idea to leave the best of it at home.

The experience begins past the cooling section (and often the toilets), into the steam room, or hararet. For centuries architects worked to perfect the design of the hararet: a domed, octagonal (or square) room, revetted in marble, often with marvelous oculi to provide entry for sunlight, and with intricate basins at various intervals and a heated marble platform, known as the naval stone or göbektasi, in the center. Often the hamam is covered with elaborately crafted and ornately designed tiles.

Many first-time visitors have questions about how much clothing to take off. In segregated hamams it's customary and acceptable to strip (this is a bath, after all) or to wear a bikini bottom. While generally, the gender of hamam attendants in hotels and major tourist centers matches that of the client's, it is not uncommon for a neighborhood hamam to staff only men. Call ahead if you have any concerns.

The hamam ritual begins with you supine on the heated naval stone. Step one is the scrubbing using an abrasive mitt (kese) aimed at removing the outer layer of dead skin and other organic detritus. (Offer a tip to your attendant before the rubdown.) The actual bath is next; the substantial and slippery soap bubbles create the perfect canvas for the accompanying massage. This is primarily where you will notice the difference between a private hamam (where you are the only "client") and one of the more commercial ones. In the commercial ones (listed above, all of which I have nevertheless frequented repeatedly), don't be surprised if your massage feels more like a cursory pummeling. After all, how many clients complain? (Not me.) The private hotel hamams have more of a long-term stake and therefore provide high-quality service. The difference is like night and day.

The final act of the ritual is the rinsing (you may even get a relaxing facial massage), followed by a definitive tap on the shoulder followed by "You like?" -- an indication that your session is over. At this point you are most likely dehydrated and sleepy, which is when the purpose of that cold room with the lounge chairs becomes evident. Refreshments are available and the price list is usually displayed nearby. (Refreshments are usually included in the price of a hotel hamam.) In the commercial hamams you can go back into the hararet as often as you like, whereas in a hotel hamam a session lasts 45 minutes to an hour.

Whether you opt for the $30 version or the $75 hotel service, definitely sign up for "the works" at least once in your life and you'll forever comprehend why it was indeed good to be the sultan.

Salve for the Turkish Soul: Istanbul's Spas

Who knew that on top of the remnants of antiquity, beyond a coastline baked by a glorious Mediterranean climate, besides a wealth of pastoral landscapes and traditional villages, above the cosmopolitan skylines, and outside of a delectable kitchen, that Turkey, with a claim to more than 1,000 thermal springs, benefits from a geothermal cacophony of self-indulgence. Sitting atop its own tectonic rift, the province of Istanbul is no exception, if you're willing to travel the hour or more to reach the thermal springs of Tuzla or soak in the Çekirge springs in Bursa. But the absence of its own homegrown thermal bubbly, Turkey's Gotham provides a respectable alternative in the form of deluxe spas and wellness centers with custom services for men, women, and couples.

If it's an exclusive, sublime, and decadent experience you're after, the Caudelie Vinotherapie Spa at Les Ottomans, Muallim Naci Cad. 68, Kuruçesme (tel. 0212/359-1500; www.lesottomans.com), is hands down the winner. Fragrant with orchids and lavender, clients drift pleasurably from able to abler hands, limp from a friction merlot scrub or a grape-seed and essential oil corporal massage, followed by a timeless moment in the light therapeutic meditation room, or the aromatically healing steam room, or the relaxation-stimulating cool room. Before you know it, a whole afternoon has passed by, and you feel delightfully intoxicated and rejuvenated.

If the spa at Les Ottomans rates up there with the Sultan's treatment, the Sanitas Spa at the Çiragan Palace, Çiragan Cad. 32, Besiktas (tel. 0212/326-4646; www.kempinski-istanbul.com), would be targeting the Valide Sultan, or queen mother. While not as elitist, the Sanitas Spa is at least as exclusive, and for 40 ever-so-brief moments, I indeed felt like royalty under the servile hands of my hamam masseuse. Opt for the four-handed ayurvedic energy balance massage or the Indochine body package of effleurages, Western kneading, Cleopatra milk bath, Japanese percussion, Thai stretching, and Indian Rubbing and I guarantee you will also sprout a virtual crown.

Alas, Istanbul clientele being as demanding as it is, the list of über-luxe spas seems to go on and on. At the Ritz-Carlton's Laveda Spa, Askerocagi Cad. 15, Sisli (tel. 0212/334-4444; www.ritzcarlton.com), you can choose among Caviar Therapy and Citrus Detox Reviver, or opt for the Sultan's royal Six-Hand Massage, and you can avail of these services alfresco in summer in one of the treatment areas overlooking the visually soothing Bosphorus Straits. Couples can treat each other to the Gift of Bacchus, a veritable cornucopia of wine-grape treatments capitalizing on the antioxidant properties of polyphenol. At the Four Seasons The Bosphorus, Çiragan Cad. 28, Besiktas (tel. 0212/381-4160), Monte Carlo Glamour and Detox Cote D'Azur treatments illustrate the target audience of this luxury spa. Treatments run the gamut from anti-aging scrubs and facials, through to slimming or soothing massages.

As if wine baths, grape massages, and caviar rubs weren't enough, the self-indulgent can sample the latest trend in body massage: the body coffee rub or body-stimulating coffee wrap at the Sanda Spa (locations at the Hillside City Club in Etiler tel. 0212/352-2500], in Istinye tel. 0212/367-2060], and on the Asian side in Kozyatagi tel. 0216/472-0072]; www.sandaspa.com). Treatments employ only cream-of-the-crop products, from the exclusive Murad, to Elemis anti-aging serums, to the Body Coffee line of products. The Taylife Spa at the Sofa Hotel, Tesvikiye Cad. 123, Nisantasi (tel. 0212/368-1818; www.thesofahotel.com), is another oasis of relaxation and rejuvenation in the heart of Istanbul's trendiest quarter. Treatments center around detox and wellness, with a menu that includes balneotherapy, ayurvedic massage, and stress-removal programs.

Admittedly, even a brief visit to one of these mini-vacation spots will stretch the wallet, but if you can find a balance, the experience is most certainly worth it, particularly if you've got your eye on the personalized hamam treatment -- a sumptuous alternative to a short trip to the albeit historic neighborhood hamam.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.