Alongside the palaces and mosques of the Ottoman era, it is Istanbul’s hamams, or Turkish baths, with their majestic domes encrusted with convex glass skylights, that have left the most distinctive mark on the fabric of the city. Hamams still provide a glimpse of one of the most quintessential Turkish customs – and are a particularly relaxing place to spend a few hours.
In Ottoman times, when the rituals of bathing and the designs of the baths reached their zenith, baths were never merely a place to get clean – they also fulfilled important social functions. For women, the hamam was where gossip was exchanged, bridal parties were held, and mothers eyed potential brides for their sons; for men, it was a politically neutral venue in which to gather and discuss the affairs of the day.
All Turkish baths (which are sex-segregated) have the same basic layout, and for both men and women the process is the same. Guests first enter the room-temperature camekan, a multi-storey atrium with a fountain in the centre and small private cabins along the sides for changing and storing belongings. They then don a special hamam towel called a peştemal and clogs or slippers before proceeding to a moderately warm antechamber that serves as a buffer before entering the sweltering main chamber.
The sıcaklık, or ‘hot room’, is the most striking part of the hamam, with a soaring dome overhead dotted with tiny star-shaped or hexagonal skylights called ‘elephant’s eyes’. It is dominated by the göbektaşı, or ‘navel stone’, a large, usually octagonal, heated marble platform on which bathers can have an exfoliation (kese) and/or vigorous kneading by an attendant (always of the same gender as the guest) or simply lie down, sweat and luxuriate in the hot, steamy air. Small alcoves along the sides of the chamber with taps and marble water basins allow for more private bathing. Today, many baths provide modern skin and body treatments in addition to the traditional ones; these are usually carried out, post-bathing, in the private compartments off the camekan, where guests can also relax with tea or a cool drink.
Perhaps the most famous, and certainly one of the longest established, of Istanbul’s grand Ottoman hamams is Çemberlitaş, located just off the Divan Yolu not far from the Grand Bazaar. Built in 1584 by the Ottomans’ most celebrated architect, Mimar Sinan, the hamam is still heated in the time-honoured way, by a furnace that burns wood chips, producing steam that warms the entire structure. Çemberlitaş has undergone two restorations in recent decades and is especially atmospheric – it’s no surprise that scenes in several movies, including the recent Taken 2, have been filmed there. Along with classic hamam services, oil massage, Indian head massage and clay facial masks are also available. Çemberlitaş is a favourite with visitors and also has a loyal local clientele.
Another popular bath, nearby Cağaloğlu Hamamı, has been in continuous operation since it opened in 1741. Unlike other major hamams in the city, it is in its original state, having never been restored. The result is an historic ambiance virtually unchanged from Ottoman times and Cağaloğlu offers various traditional treatments; the most indulgent, the Sultan Mahmut I package, features a massage by two attendants.
The impressive Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, located near Hagia Sophia, operates more along the lines of a spa. The hamam, which Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent commissioned Sinan to build for his wife Hürrem Sultan (aka Roxelana) in 1556, reopened in 2011 after a $10m restoration. Alongside the Turkish bath, peels, clay body masks, and several types of massage are offered; the focus is on personalised service and appointments are required.
‘By bringing together a hamam with the concept of the spa, we have done something unique,’ says Hikmet Güveli Bayındır, Aysofya’s operations manager. ‘Based on historical research, we have created our own rituals for people to feel like a sultan.’ The lavish Elixir of Life package, for example, includes a private aromatherapy massage with oil of redbud (Hürrem’s favourite flower) and refreshments of traditional Ottoman beverages.
The newest addition to Istanbul’s bath scene is Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı in Tophane, which reopened in 2012 after a five-year restoration and is ideally located for visitors who don’t want to head down to the Old City. The late-16th-century Sinan masterpiece has just one bathing facility, meaning that there are separate visiting hours for men and women. With a bright, airy feel and attentive service, the beautifully restored hamam provides a convenient and luxurious respite from the city – an opportunity not even a sultan could resist.