Throughout the history of Istanbul, the hammam has held an important place in the lives of everyone from sultans to common residents. It’s easy to see them today as simply elaborate spas—but the space, the rituals, and even the accessories are all part of a historical thread.
By Monica Liau
They’re easy to spot from a distance, the slightly bulbous roofs that hide clouds of steam fueled by a central furnace. These are the hammams of Istanbul, a combination of spiritual and cleansing spaces that for hundreds of years acted as important meeting places around the city. They first appeared in the city as simple bathing pools during the Roman and then Byzantine times. Running water, necessary for Islamic ablutions, was later added by the Ottomans. Today they are seen as simply places to relax, but before the twentieth century they were important gathering spaces for pleasure and necessity.
It may be hard to imagine, but there was a time in Istanbul when there was nearly a hammam in every neighborhood. Supported by the Ottoman government and the local mosque, people would pay a small fee to use them and to keep the facilities running. In her scholarly paper “Continuity and Change in Turkish Bathing Culture in Istanbul”, Nina Cichocki writes that Turkish baths were “and to a certain extent still are, a social phenomenon, the study of which allows us valuable insights into connections between everyday life and larger historical forces.” In the sixteenth century, there were a reported 4,536 private baths and 300 public hammams in Istanbul alone. While some were designed by famous architects, such as Mimar Sinan, many were simple affairs used regularly by both men and women (separately) as a place to wash off the grit of the city, and as a welcome, social respite from life’s woes.
For women especially, a trip to the hammam was an important part of the week, the only time when they could relax and socialize with women outside the family and catch up on local gossip. “The bathhouses where Turkish women usually meet are the places where gossip is most widespread and most intense,” wrote Edmondo de Amicis in his 1878 book Constantinople. “They go in pairs and in groups with their slaves, carrying cushions, carpets, toiletries, delicacies to eat, and often their entire lunch so they can stay there all day.”
They were also an important part of other, more structured rituals. In the advent of a wedding, the hammam served as a place for the bride and her female friends and family to have a sort of bachelorette party called a “henna night.” Songs were sung, meals were eaten, and the women were decorated with henna paint. Then, with the bride leading the way, the party would move slowly behind a woman beating a tambourine around the main room, singing and chanting joyously. After a birth, the hammam served as a place for circumcision.
By 1936, the hammam moved from being owned by the government into private possession. As upkeep was expensive, and as indoor plumbing became more and more common, the hammam as the neighborhood cornerstone began to fade. Many glorious architectural feats lost some of their grandeur. The stunning Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, commissioned for the famous Hürrem Sultan herself, was used for a variety of purposes; including holding felons when the Sultanahmet jail was full, a paper depot, and later a public carpet museum. The amazing marble spa of the Çırağan Palace was overgrown with dust and weeds, until it was recovered and renovated by the Kempinski Hotel (today it’s used as a ballroom).
In today’s Istanbul there are around only 60 (historical) hammams available for use by the public. However, their popularity is again beginning to grow. While most people have their own showers in their apartment, the hammam still serves as a welcome oasis within the hustle and bustle of the modern city, serving customers for pleasure and health, the exfoliation and long steam opening up and renewing the skin, the quiet environment soothing the mind. They may no longer be a necessity, but they are still a valued part of both Turkish history and an intrinsic part of today’s modern wellness desires, helping to boost skin radiance, and promote relaxation and mental peace of mind. As written by Julia Pardoe in her 1838 book The Beauties of the Bosphorus, “there is perhaps no luxury throughout the luxurious East more perfect, or more complete than the Baths.” Thankfully, those words still ring true.
Historical Istanbul hammams still in use
Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı
Located between the looming edifices of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, this historic spot was completed in 1556, built by order of Süleyman the Magnificent for his wife Hürrem. It underwent sweeping renovations in 2008 and beautifully showcased the building’s original elements, with soaring ceilings, shining wooden banisters, and spacious marble bathing rooms. Attendants only use natural products for treatments. There is both a male and female section within the same grounds.Cankurtaran Mahallesi Ayasofya Meydanı No. 2, Fatih. T: (0212) 517 35 35, www.ayasofyahamami.com
Tarihi Galatasaray Hamamı
Tarihi Galatasaray Hamamı was built in 1481 during the reign of Beyazıt II. The mysterious story of this hammam goes back to when Sultan Beyazıt met a respected man of the time, Gül Baba, and asked whether he had any wishes. Gül Baba requested a külliye complex with a hammam. Gül Baba’s grave is still in the Kulliye. Turnacıbaşı Sokak No. 24, Beyoğlu; T: (0212) 252 42 42, www.galatasarayhamami.com
Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı
Another magnificent piece of architecture, named after Kılıç Ali Paşa—one of the greatest admirals in Ottoman history. He hired famed architect Mimar Sinan, and built this hammam (completed in 1583) to serve the marine forces of the Ottoman navy. Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı today offers a luxurious environment, after seven years of careful and meticulous restoration. Hamam Sokak No. 1, Tophane. T: (0212) 393 80 10, www.kilicalipasahamami.com
Build in 1584, again by the famous chief Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, and dating back to Selim II’s era, Çemberlitaş Hamamı is located in the old city. If you visit the hammam on a sunny day, don’t miss the chance to lay on the göbektaşı, the large hot central stone. Vezirhan Caddesi No. 8, Çemberlitaş; T: (0212) 522 79 74, www.cemberlitashamami.com
Hamam bathing essentials
- Peştemal: Perhaps the most famous article of the Turkish hammam, the lightweight peştemal (hammam towel) is woven using special loops and made of 100 percent cotton, famous for its absorbency and softness. They are generally worn inside the hammam, and dry very quickly.
- Pumice Set: Pumice is a type of volcanic rock known for its rough texture that’s a perfect, healthy way to slough off dry skin on elbows, knees, soles of feet and other rough patches. Lalay offers pumice stones with handcrafted wooden handles for easy use. Meclis-i Mebusan Cad. No.59/6, Fındıklı; T: (0212) 210 19 21
- Hamam kese: During the rejuvenating massage, the hamam kesesi (Turkish bath glove) is used to exfoliate your skin and scrub off the dead cells. But you can also do this ritual at home by purchasing one of your own. We love Bodrum Havlu’s products with its local textiles and revamped traditional designs.
- Olive Oil Soap: The famous olive oil soaps of Turkey offer a natural way to nourish and moisturize the skin. Zeytune Sabun offers high-quality handmade, cold-pressed organic Turkish soaps—each a pretty piece of art infused with ingredients such as lavender and rosemary.
- Hammam Bowl: One of the most important rituals in hammam culture, the beautifully ornate bowls are used to hold bathing items and scoop water from the marble basins.
- Takunya: Wooden clogs called takunya are traditionally worn in the hammam to keep your feet comfortable and off the slick surfaces, and are generally carved from remarkably hard Oriental Hornbeam wood. Today, you’re more likely to be handed plastic flip flops at a hammam, but for a taste of the old ways Abdulla in the Grand Bazaar offers lovely handmade takunyas with a knitted, quick-drying linen foot strap. Alibaba Türbe Sokak No.15, Çemberlitaş; T: (0212) 526 30 70