Istanbul’s hamams offer sanctuary from hustle and bustle
There were once over 14,000 Turkish baths in Istanbul. Today, there are only around 130 remaining. AA photoThe Islamic emphasis on personal cleanliness and purification resulted in hundreds of hamams being built throughout Istanbul over the centuries starting, from around 1400. There were once over 14,000 Turkish baths in Istanbul, acting as the neighborhood’s social club as well as a place to clean oneself.
Today, there are only around 130 remaining in the city, but they still offer a unique sanctuary from the overstimulation of the city and a place to awaken the senses.
Four of Istanbul’s oldest hamams, the Çemberlitaş, Galatasaray, Cağaloğlu and Hagia Sophia Hürrem Sultan hamams, are mainly named after the neighborhoods in which they are found.
The Çemberlitaş Hamam, one of the oldest bathhouses in Istanbul, was built by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in 1584.
It was built at the request of Nurbanu Sultan, wife of the Ottoman Sultan Selim II, for the purpose of bringing in revenue to support a charity complex that she had founded.
Tourists do not want to leave Turkey without spending time at a hamam, said Tuğba Uyar, the press officer at Çemberlitas Hamam.
“Foreign interest is huge. Spanish people love to come to our bathhouses. Recently, Arabs and young Turkish people have also begun to visit hamams,” she said, adding that it was the spectacular architecture and relaxing ambience that impressed them most.
During the Ottoman era, hamams also became popular for socializing, especially for women, added Uyar.
Cağaloğlu Hamam was built in 1741 and was the last major one to be built during the Ottoman Empire. It is listed one of the 1,000 places to see before you die, according to travel writer Patricia Schultz.
Located in Istanbul’s Eminönü neighborhood, it was built as a public hamam to earn revenue for a library commissioned by Ottoman ruler Sultan Mahmut I.
It is the last example of its kind to be built in Istanbul. “The main bathrooms are beautiful, all marble with big slabs in the middle where you lay down wrapped in a little towel to relax,” said Ömer Tolkun, the hamam’s manager.
Tolkun said the place had remained unchanged for over 300 years. “First you need to relax and loosen up for a while and, most importantly, sweat!” said Tolkun.
Cağaloğlu Hamam has hosted many historical and popular guests like Florence Nightingale, Omer Sharif, Harrison Ford, Kate Moss and Cameron Diaz, Tolkun said.
Mimar Sinan also designed and built the Hagia Sophia Hürrem Sultan Hamam on the site where the ancient public baths of Zeuxippus (100-200 A.D.) used to stand, between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. It was built at the request of Hürrem Sultan, the wife of Süleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century.
The area has further significance as a Temple of Zeus used to stand on the site.
The hamam was operational until 1910 when it was closed for many years. It was later used to house convicts during times when the nearby Sultanahmet Prison was full. It subsequently became a storage place for paper and oil. It is one of the most beautiful monuments in Istanbul and was restored for the first time in 1957-1958 before becoming a carpet bazaar until 2007.
Galatasaray Hamam, meanwhile, is a 15th-century bathhouse located in Beyoğlu next to the high school of the same name. It was built in 1715 as a public bath in line with classical Turkish hamam architectural design.
It underwent renovation in 1965 and while its main structure remained intact, its architectural details and interior portions were redesigned.