Traditional hammam experience in Istanbul

Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

I follow the call of the muezzin directing me to the Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque in Beyoğlu on the European side of Istanbul, a stone’s throw away from the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. Opposite the grand mosque, I enter the namesake hammam: the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. Sailors used to gather here to wash before praying, and sometimes only, they would also pamper in a treatment that I am about to experience.

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The navy men of the Ottoman Empire are long gone, and after 10 years of restoration, the hammam named after Kılıç Ali Paşa – an Italian prisoner who served as a slave on the galleys of the Ottoman Navy, converted to Islam and became one of the greatest admirals of the Ottoman Empire – who had it built for his forces in the 16th century, has reopened.

Temporarily away from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, I am enjoying a sherbet, a refreshing drink made of fresh fruits that has been served here since 1580. Under the majestic brick dome, I am sipping the seasonal hibiscus juice in the perfectly symmetrical space by the fountain.

After undressing in a private changing room, I am entering the hot room of the Turkish baths covered in a cotton wrap, following Aigü, my natır for today, or female hammam attendant. In this monochrome marble hot room dotted with wash basins, I am laying down on a large hexagonal hot slab to accommodate to the warm temperature. The natural light is gently filtered through stars and moons pierced into the dome. Other natır enter and the sound of water flowing into the 8 marble water basins surrounding the marble slab fills up the hammam. Aigü guides me and she is soon exfoliating my skin with a scrubbing mitten. She rinses me regularly, playing with dexterity with the cold and hot water taps to always get the temperature right. Other women are attended to by their own female attendant by their own wash basin this morning (for men, it is in the evening that male attendants provide the same treatments) giving me a glimpse of what is coming.

Aigü lets me take it in for a moment as she is busy preparing the next treat with a copper bucket filled with warm water and a traditional Hacı Şakir hammam soap bar. She is soon covering me with a warm blanket of soap bubbles with a delicious citrus smell while her skilled hands massage all of my body vigorously. Taking her time, she makes sure I thoroughly enjoy the köpük, or bubble soap wash and washes me from head to toes. Nothing is left unattended, and Aigü literally takes me by the hand the whole way, washing, rinsing and even drying me. I feel completely relaxed and cleansed.

Later, I am laying down in the lounge on a sofa covered with cushions under the main dome, sipping a çai, the traditional black tea. Relaxing and resting to the sound of Turkish music and the running water of the central fountain, I am browsing through the photos of the award-winning restoration project of the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. I am amazed by the brilliant work of Istanbul-born architect Cafer Bozkurt who sublimed the authentic masonry construction of lead domes of the 16th century chief Ottoman architect Sinan – responsible for more than 300 buildings for sultans such as Suleiman the Magnificent including the majestic UNESCO World Heritage Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul.

More than a pampering experience, treating myself to the traditional Turkish baths was a dip into the still deeply rooted culture that the Ottomans inherited from the Roman thermae as well as an architectural journey in one of the gems of Istanbul in the off the beaten path area of Tophane.

Travel tips:

  • Make sure to book ahead, and plan for enough time to relax in the lounge after your treatment.
  • Also visit the exquisite Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque that is next door.
  • For a comfortable stay, the Hotel Ruz is ideally located and offers a wonderful view from its trendy rooftop bar and restaurant:
  • Ruz Hotel rooftop view on the Galata Tower, Istanbul
  • Room in the Ruz Hotel, Istanbul
  • Vintage phone in the Ruz Hotel, Istanbul
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)! The black pins will lead you to other articles.

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