The hamam tradition has been passed down from the Romans to the Byzantines to the Turks.
The Islamic emphasis on personal cleanliness and purification resulted in hundreds of hamams being built throughout Istanbul over the centuries starting from around 1400. This tradition has been passed down from the Romans to the Byzantines to the Turks.
At the height of their building program six hundred years ago, there were over 14,000 Turkish baths in Istanbul. They acted as the neighborhood’s social club as well as a place to clean oneself. Today there are only around 130 but they still offer a unique sanctuary from the overstimulation of the city and a place to awaken the senses.
We take a look at four of Istanbul’s oldest hamams, mainly named after the neighborhoods in which they are found. The Cemberlitas, Galatasaray, Cagaloglu and Hagia Sophia Hurrem Sultan hamams.
Cemberlitas Hamam, one of the oldest bathhouses in Istanbul, was built by famous Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, in 1584.
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 found.
Tourists do not want to leave Turkey without spending time at a hamam, says Tugba Uyar, press officer at Cemberlitas Hamam.
“Foreign interest is huge. Spanish people love to come to our bath houses. Recently, Arabs and young Turkish people have also begun to visit hamams,” she says. Uyar says that it is the spectacular architecture and relaxing ambience impresses them most.
During the Ottoman era, hamams also became popular for socializing, especially for women who choose to come to hamams to have fun, adds Uyar.
Cagaloglu Hamam was built in 1741 and is the last 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 Eminonu neighborhood, it was built as a public hamam to bring revenue for the library of commissioned by the Ottoman ruler Sultan Mahmut I.
It is the last example of its kind to be built in Istanbul and is still operating to this day.
“The main bathrooms are beautiful, all marble with big slabs in the middle where you lay down wrapped in a little towel to relax,” says Omer Tolkun, hamam’s manager.
Tolkun says that the place has remained unchanged for over 300 years.
“First you need to relax and loosen up for a while, and most importantly sweat!,” says Tolkun.
The keseci (person who washes and scrubs down a customer) is a familiar character at a hamam. The ‘Keseci’ or masseur can be both male or female.
Cagoglu Hamam has hosted many historical and popular guests.
Mimar Sinan, the chief Ottoman architect, also designed and built the Hagia Sophia Hurrem Sultan hamam on the site where the ancient public baths of Zeuxippus (100-200 AD) used to stand, between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. It was built at the request of Hurrem Sultan (Roxelana), the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century (1556-1557 AD).
The area is also particularly significant as the site where the Temple of Zeus once stood.
The hamam was operational until 1910 when it closed for many years. It was later used to house the convicts during times when the nearby Sultanahmet Prison was full. Subsequently it was a storage place for paper and oil. It is one of the most beautiful monuments in Istanbul, was restored for the first time between the years 1957-1958 and was a carpet bazaar until 2007.
Galatasaray Hamam, is a 15th-century bathhouse located in Beyoglu in Taksim Square in Istanbul.
The Galatasaray Hamam is located in Galatasaray at the junction of Turnacibasi and Capanoglu streets. 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, and as such it has lost some of its historical attraction.