Hammam is a unique Turkish public bath concept, combining the architecture of ancient Roman baths with Central Asian Turkic tradition of steam bathing and respect to water along with ritual purification needs of Islam.
After the conquest in 1453, Ottomans made Istanbul their capital city and started there to build monumental structures, including more than 200 hammams, 60 of which are still in use.
In the old days of Ottoman Istanbul, hammam was also an important place for socializing and discussing daily issues, especially for the isolated Muslim women as the only meeting point where they could come together. Once an integral part of the Ottoman culture, hammam is still a matchless experience that must be tried at least once in a lifetime.
Hammam experience starts at camekan, the reception and dressing hall of the hammam. It’s the most impressive part of the Ottoman hammam usually with a fountain in the center. It’s the place where you’re welcomed by your personal bath attendant. Male attendants are called tellak and female attendants natır.
The attendants usually provide visitors with slippers and a pestamal, a very thin and absorbent towel to cover the body like a pareo. Inside the pestamal you can have your bathing suits or bikinis but the true underwear for the authentic experience is your bare naked body. Slippers are a contemporary replacement for traditional wooden clogs called takunya or nalın used in Ottoman times.
The attendant will guide you into warmer parts of the hammam. You pass through soğukluk, a passageway of intermediate temperature serving as an anteroom for the bath, keeping the cold air out and hot air in and then ılıklık a warmer chamber surrounded with marble bath basins called kurna. Older persons who cannot stand high temperatures and humidity prefer to have bath in ılıklık.
Then you enter the sultriest and the most magical part of the hammam, called sıcaklık or hararet. Its large dome decorated with tiny glass windows create a dim atmosphere, surrounded by steam floating like a mysterious fog. In the middle of the chamber there’s göbektaşı. Literally translated as belly-stone, it’s a hot marble platform for relaxing and massage directly heated from the furnace room below, which is called külhan.
You start with lying for 20 minutes on göbektaşı. It’s a relaxed lying and sweating. Your skin become moist, your pores will be opened, and the dead cells of your skin slowly get ready to be removed. Then you come near the kurna specially reserved for you. The attendant starts rubbing, scrubbing and exfoliating your skin with a rough mitt called kese and then you’ll be soaped with a natural hammam soap and rinsed off with warm water from an hammam bowl.
Then you climb again on göbektaşı where you get a soap massage for 15 minutes and go back to kurna to get rinsed off. Then you either have the special massage with fragrant oils in a private room called halvet or return to soğukluk, to cool down, dry off and relax while sipping a glass of tea or sherbet with thoughts in your mind. You’ll be thinking that you definitely want to repeat this experience as soon as you can.
10 BEST HAMMAMS OF ISTANBUL
There are many historical hammams in Istanbul, and it is a very hard task to come up with a Top 10 Hammam List without mixing up different style of hammams. Here is my personal list that includes a variety of hammams. Some of these are fancy, and some are almost ruined, but have a character. Above all, they all resemble the history of Ottoman bathing. Hope you enjoy it.
It is one of the oldest Istanbul hammams dating back to Selim II’s era. The bath section was built by the famous Ottoman architect, Sinan, in 1584. This building dates to Sinan’s last period, in which his experience and skills allowed him to combine functionality, elegance and tranquility while keeping his simple design, which avoids overly decorated elements. The architecture of Çemberlitaş Hammam attracts not only travelers and locals, but many Turkish & foreign researchers, universities, photographers, film makers, media professionals and students also study this magnificent structure. A visit to Çemberlitaş Hammam can be one of the best Turkish bathing experiences under the huge dome. Try to plan your visit on a sunny day, so that you can get to lay on the göbektaşı, the large hot central stone, while the sunlight beams stream through the holes of the dome ceiling.
Cağaloğlu Hammam is located on the Yerebatan Street close to Grand Bazaar. It is listed in Patricia Schultz’s famous book “1000 places to see before you die” as a must-have experience in Istanbul. This building is the last great Turkish bath house that was built in the Ottoman Era. It was constructed in 1741 by two different Ottoman era architects. Süleyman Ağa started the construction, then Abdullah Ağa completed it. The beautifully detailed building with high domed ceilings, internal marble fountains, interior garden, and two separate sections of dressing rooms are still part of a great architectural delight. There is a cafe in the hammam and they also hold BBQ parties in the garden during summer, fireplace parties in winter. Belly dancing and Ottoman music ensemble shows are to be performed for tourist groups.
According to a myth, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II, after a hunting party, was having a walk in the forest, which today has Galatasaray High School and Galatasaray Hammam on it. Bayezid sees a little cabin, and realizes that Gül Baba (Father of Roses) resides in it. Gül Baba is one of the famous dervishes and poets of the era. He was a big inspiration for Mehmed the Conqueror, Bayezid’s father, and joined many wars with him. Bayezid asked him, if he had any wishes. Gül Baba requested an ever-lasting külliye (a complex of communal facilities surrounding a mosque) to be build on the forest land, and he also asked for a big academy, and a hammam with a large dome to be included in the külliye. Then, he offered two roses to Bayezid, one yellow, one red. His wishes were accepted, and the külliye was built in 1481, and Galata Sarayı, Galata Palace, adapted red and yellow as its main colors. Today, the tomb of Gül Baba still resides in the garden of Galatasaray High School. Galatasaray Hammam is one of the famous Turkish baths that has been consistently serving domestic and foreign visitors. The hammam has marble slabs in the soğukluk, the cooling area, where you can get a great massage in semi-privacy. The steam room is very hot, since it’s also used by locals - that’s how they like it. The central large and hot stone, göbektaşı, is also very hot, so you need to lay towels to be able to lie on it.
Beylerbeyi Hammam is close to Beylerbeyi ferry quay/pier, and it is located right next to Beylerbeyi Mosque. It can easily be spotted, since it is an Ottoman style wooden building. The complex was built in 1778 with the order of Sultan Abdulhamid I, and it was dedicated to his mother Rabia Sermi Kadin. In the old days, hammams were built right next to mosques, and they were bringing revenue as a part of a non-profit organization. Beylerbeyi Hammam was generating revenue for the complex. Camekan, the section for changing clothes, has a wooden ceiling, ılıklık, the transition area from the cooling area to the hot bath room, has a nice marble fountain. Hot room has a small göbektaşı, central hot stone for relaxing and massages. There are total of thirteen kurnas, fountains, and four halvets, private rooms. Beylerbeyi Hammam serves men and women on separate schedules. Ladies can visit in the morning till the early afternoon, and male customers can visit afterwards.
KILIÇ ALİ PAŞA HAMMAM
Kılıç Ali Paşa also known as Occhiali or Uluj Ali was an Italian slave converted to Islam, who made it to Constantinople and then became a captain and gained power. He played a significant role in the Ottoman naval victories in the 16th century, and finally became the Grand Admiral of the Ottoman Navy. The most famous Ottoman architect, Sinan, was commissioned to build the Kılıç Ali Paşa complex and its hammam that would be named after Kılıç Ali Paşa. Sinan built a charming hammam with a magnificent dome and a camekan, the relaxation area, beneath it. The dome is 14 meters in diameter, and 17 meters in height, making it one of the largest domes built by Sinan. Restoration of Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammam took more than 7 years, in which the original features of the hammam, including the two doors leading from the reception and relaxation area into the warm areas, and many more original details were retained. You’ll get to enjoy the features of Külhan Chimney/exhaust, the leaded domes and the glass elephant eyes, original kurnas and some carved stone and marble slabs found during excavation, which are kept the same way in order to keep the original design and style of the structure. It is one of the fanciest hammams in Istanbul.
Ağa Hammam was constructed by Mehmed the Conqueror and was used as his private bath in the 15th century. It serves only foreigners and provides a relax atmosphere for both genders simultaneously. Massages and scrubs are conducted by same-sex masseurs in private rooms. Their prices are lower than their counterparts in the Old City, Sultanahmet.
HASEKİ HÜRREM SULTAN HAMMAM
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hammam is another magnificent structure built by Sinan, the chief Ottoman architect. Hürrem Sultan, Roxelana, the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, ordered it to be built in 1556. It was built where the ancient public baths of Zeuxippus (100-200 AD) used to stand, in the middle of Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The area was also a home for the Temple of Zeus, which was moved from Olympia to Constantinople in the ancient ages. The hammam was used until 1910, then it was shut for a long time period. During these times, the hamam was even used as a prison to keep the exceeding convicts at Sultanahmet Prison. Then, it was used as a storage for paper and oil. In 1957, it was renovated for the first time, and served as a carpet bazaar until 2007. The last renovation that helped the structure regain its magnificent look started in 2008, and took three years and costed 17M TL. 1300 square meters of Marmara marble was used during the renovations to be able to bring the hammam into its current condition. Although, Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hammam was built with the classical Ottoman bath style, the hammam was constructed in a way that men and women sections were constructed on the same axis as mirror images of each other. This is also one of the fanciest hammams in Istanbul, and they serve customers with 160 gold plated bath bowls, and silk and cotton (%50-50) mixture pestamals, the bath wraps were produced in Ödemiş, İzmir.
Süleymaniye Hammam was built as a part of the Süleymaniye Külliye in 1557. As I described earlier, the külliye complex has numerous facilities around a mosque. The Süleymaniye complex includes Süleymaniye Mosque, a medrese, hospital, lunatic asylum, infirmary, tombs, a hamam, a market and a primary school. Süleymaniye Hammam is also called Dökmeciler Hammam due to the fact that it is in Dökmeciler Bazaar. Again, this is another work of the Ottoman architect Sinan, and it is one of the most touristy hammams in Istanbul. This part of the old city has been protected by the tourism authorities, therefore Süleymaniye Hammam has been maintaining its originality. It was opened with a big ceremony, and Suleiman the Magnificent took the first bath after a special ceremony and prayers, and it only served to the members of the külliye for many years. It has a similar plan to Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hammam, and it is also built in the second period of Sinan, which he humbly called his journeymanship period.
MİHRİMAH SULTAN HAMMAM
Mihrimah Sultan Hammam was built between 1562-1565 by Sinan for Suleiman the Magnificent’s daughter, Mihrimah Sultan. Mihr-i Mah, means “the sun and the moon”. Suleiman ordered two külliyes (one in Üsküdar, one in Edirnekapı) to be built by Sinan. There is a myth about these two mosques. It is said that Mimar Sinan fell in love with Mihrimah and built the smaller mosque in Edirnekapı without palace approval, on his own, and dedicated it to his love. The legend continues to say that on March 21st (Northern hemisphere spring equinox, when day time and night time are equal and Mihrimah’s alleged birthday, hence the name) at the time of sunset, if you have clear view of both mosques, you will notice that as the sun sets behind the only minaret of the mosque in Edirnekapı, the moon rises between the two minarets of the mosque in Üsküdar. The Mihrimah Sultan Hammam has a square shaped camekan area which is built on top of twelve columns. The hot bath room is built under a large dome with four halvets and four eyvans and includes a göbektaşı, octagonal marble slab. There are also a pool and a hot tub, which are criticized as unnecessary add-ons making the facility lose its historical value.
Firuzağa Hammam is located on Çukurcuma Street, and it is estimated to be built in 1831. It is also called as Bostanbaşı Hammam, however, Firuzağa Hammam name was more accepted by the locals due to the fact that it is close to Firuzağa Mosque. The external of the hammam is built by cement and covered with mosaics. It has a wooden camekan, and two halvets, and a square göbektaşı in the hot bath area. It serves women and men on different schedules at the same facility.
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