Istanbul: Hamams

Kiliç Ali Pasa rooftop with sky lights
Kiliç Ali Pasa rooftop with sky lights

One of the oldest most satisfying traditions from the Ottoman Empire and even further back is the Hamam. Historically the Hamam is the traditional Islamist or Turkish bath which derives itself from its precursors, the Greek and Roman baths. Originally, they were for men only but now admit women separately or on separate days. These ritual baths are the ultimate in cleansing, scrubbing and massaging the body and all performed by adult male attendants.

The warming room
The warming room

Most hamams were built next door to mosques. The ritual cleansing of the hands, face and feet or the whole body before and after the call to prayer necessitated their proximity.

Antique water vessel
Antique water vessel

There are several historically significant Hamams in Istanbul which are on the list of must see monuments: Çemberlitaş Hamamı, the bath near the complex of the 1558 Süleymaniye Mosque and Selimiye Mosque and the Kiliç Ali Pasa Hamami dating from 1580. A typical hamam consists of three basic, interconnected rooms: the sıcaklık (or hararet -caldarium), which is the hot room; the warm room (tepidarium), which is the intermediate room; and the soğukluk, which is the cool room (frigidarium). The Roman frigidarium included a quite cold water pool in which patrons would immerse themselves before moving on to the warmer rooms. Also, the sequence of rooms was revised so that people generally used the cool room after the warmer rooms and massages, rather than before. Whereas the Romans used it as preparation, the Ottomans used it for refreshment (drinks and snacks are served) and recovery.IMG_9982

We went to 2 during our 4 days in Istanbul, Firuzaga Hamami and Kiliç Ali Pasa Hamami.  The Firuzaga Hamami is a very old hamam built in the Taksim neighborhood. Tucked into a street at a steep angle the typical details of hamam architecture were nowhere in evidence. It turned out that this hamam was more subterranean.

You’re dressed in a hamam towel which is like a sarong wrapped around your waist and kept on throughout the several steps of treatments. Despite all the scrubbing, massaging and bathing you always keep a towel on, though it is changed many times in the course of the hamam. The central room with its heated “tummy” stone sits under a domed ceiling with cut out star shapes for natural light to pass through. You heat up, sweat and douse yourself with hot and cold water from marble sinks spaced every few feet on the perimeter stone bench that wound around this circular room. After 10 minutes an attendant came for us and ushered us into a small room with a stone deep bench against the back wall.

Rooftop skylight detail
Rooftop skylight detail

Ali, my attendant instructed me to sit facing him as he lathered me up with soap and began scrubbing my arms, legs, back, torso, everywhere with a coarse mitt made from goat hair. This total body scrub was followed by copious cold and hot water rinses. The dead skin that was sloughed off by his strenuous action and goat hair mitt was surprising to say the least. Tons of it lay all around me on the white marble bench. He assured me it was normal and that it wasn’t a sign of some deep seated issue of cleanliness or the lack of it.

Scrubbing by attendants
Scrubbing by attendants. Orhan, my attendant is at right.
Facade of the Kiliç Ali Pasa hamam
Facade of the Kiliç Ali Pasa hamam

A cool down period followed before the oil massage performed by Umir the Greco-Roman wrestling champ. He gave me a massage I’ll never forget, essentially taking me apart and putting me back together. I felt like a newborn baby. Though the hamam was in need of some overhaul, the experience of a Turkish bath shoulder to shoulder with neighborhood inhabitants was fun and very relaxed. Walking back to our hotel that night we agreed that it was life changing and decided to go once more before leaving. The person at the reception desk of our hotel recommended a 16th century hamam that was recently restored by a contemporary architect. He recommended it highly and said that it was not only a well-kept secret but also the most beautiful hamam in the city.

The waiting area of the Kiliç Ali Pasa hamam
The waiting area of the Kiliç Ali Pasa hamam

The Kiliç Ali Pasa Hamami dating from 1580 is like walking into a modern day version of an ancient Imperial Ottoman bath. From the street it gleams with its spotless sandstone face and distinctive domes with clear glass skylights scattered across the dome’s surfaces. Walking through the elegant minimalist wooden doors you enter a central domed room that is absolutely quiet and yet glowing with light. The wooden details, inset niches around the room holding antique vessels in metal and ceramics, relaxation daybed/benches on opposite sides of the room and all brilliantly lit by concealed spots, the room is like a meditation in itself. You’re given keys to changing areas above on balconies that look down over the main floor and doorway to the 3 different rooms that make up the hamam.

Entrance to treatment rooms
Entrance to treatment rooms

Attendants in different uniforms indicating their functions; bathers/scrubbers, masseurs and dryers move silently and introduce themselves as each hands you over to the next. It was a dance that was expertly choreographed leaving you relaxed, rested and spotlessly clean.

Each room starting with the waiting area and then the warming room with its enormous warm marble tummy stone where 10 people can comfortably stretch out with room to spare are vast with high ceilings. The surfaces were all spotlessly clean, a rule that the therapists repeated on more than one occasion and the air is warm and dry. After the scrubbing, sloughing, total body soaping and rinsing you feel as though your skin were brand new.

I didn’t want it to end and they didn’t seem to be in any rush either as the process stretches easily from 2-3 hours in length. Many Turkish men go regularly to hamams as their weekly wellness therapy. I would happily add it to my list of musts.

Happy campers after a hamam to remember
Happy campers after a hamam to remember

No visit to Istanbul is complete without at least one visit to the hamam.

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