Hamam, The Turkish Bath

Ultimo aggiornamento: 4 January 2016

Hamam

As always, before considering the details of the topic and analyze the current status and offers of Hamams in Istanbul today, we will take a step back and try to explain briefly what the tradition is.

One of the duties of Islam is cleanliness, sometimes almost an obsession, starting from the ritual ablution (washing) in order to purify themselves before the prayers. In this “cleanliness” context, there are also customs such as taking of the shoes or not having pets in the houses.

The tradition of building public toilets within the city dates back to ancient Rome as a combination of advanced engineering knowledge and developed taste for comfort. The Ottomans preserved this tradition by combining it with their culture’s distinctive features and that is how come they were ended up calling “Turkish”. The Hamam historians remark that they all have the same structure in the central dome, with a marble platform at the base which was meant for relaxing and enjoying the massage.

In the Medieval Age of Europe, spa tradition was in sharp decline while it remained very much alive at the Ottoman Empire for the reasons stated above. In fact, it still remained alive until a few years ago, because until the ’50s and ’60s houses were not all equipped with private bathrooms with running water, so the hamams carried their main cleaning function. The common people from all social classes would go to hamams mainly for washing. But not only that reason. The Hamam also had important social functions as a meeting and entertainment point. In the past, it was also common to eat inside, and also organize pre-wedding ceremonies.

Nowadays hygiene habits have changed considerably at homes. All bathrooms surely have running water, so it was inevitable that the tradition gradually died out until disappearing. In fact, there are still sixty active Hamams in Istanbul, but they are divided into two categories. Except for the four or five “historical hamams” which unfortunately have become real tourist traps, and in which a local would never dream of entering, the other small neighborhood hamams are almost always desolately empty and often having suspicious hygienic conditions. Inevitably, these small hamams will be forced to shut down in the close future. They will not be able to reinvent themselves and have a leading role in the market. Local people who want to get a good Turkish bath treatment and massage go to Spas in large hotels chains nowadays. In fact, they offer excellent quality services (certainly much higher than the services offered by the historical hamams) at affordable prices.

So, how should we respond to the tourists (almost all!) who want to experience the “hamams” in Istanbul? Let’s say that it still remains a fascinating experience, especially because of the splendid interior architecture! But, be aware that you will most likely step out with disappointment. What can remain “traditional” in a place full of tourists 100%? Apparently little or nothing. If you are willing to be treated like a plucked chicken, well, then you are at the right place…

Let me be clear that we are not trying to avoid your experience, we only want to warn you and give you directions to get a more conscious approach to it.

If you decide to try them, you should know that you will generally pay a high price (from 30 to 50 Euros depending on the type of treatment). You will also be forced to buy bath gloves or soap. If that happens at peak times, you might be treated in a very dismissive and rude way. Tipping here is absolutely obligatory.

That being said, we would like to picture the Turkish bath situation in Istanbul.

Hamams usually have seperate sections for males and females. but some of them (such as Süleymaniye Hamamı) are mixed. Traditionally, each hamam is divided into 3 zones. The first area is called “Camekan” and in practice it is kind of a lobby where you can sit and relax with a cup of tea (both before and after the bath). This is the area you receive your “pestemal” which is a piece of fabric to cover the private parts. Then you enter “Soğukluk” means a transition room that allows to acclimatise before entering “Hararet”. This room is warm and steamy in which you can relax and sweat before making it to the bath.

In the center of “Hararet”, there is a large marble slab called “göbektaşı”. Right here, lying on your stomach, you will receive two main treatments. The “kese” is the traditional skin cleansing by rubbing thoroughly with a horsehair glove. This process eliminates the dead skin and then proceeds rinsing with warm water. Usually a 5-10 minutes massage (which can be quite hard and rude sometimes) and a final wash with warm water and soap follow this process. Massage is clearly optional. You can decide what treatments to take by looking at the prices before entering or by the help you can get from your friends such as washing, rubbing. Normally you stay in Hararet between 60 and 90 minutes..

We provide you a list of different types of Hamams with their addresses, opening times and our comments for each of them.

The first 5 are architecturally the most beautiful and fascinating ones. You can define them as touristic Hamams; they are safe in terms of hygiene, but the prices are quite high and in some cases the treatment can be disappointing. The last 3 are the most attractive options for those who are looking for the real spirit of the old hamams.

Our philosophy gives top priority to the intellectual honesty, for this reason we try to give you unprejudiced directions, so you can make a selection by yourself. Therefore, we hope these little reviews will help you, at least.

Cağaloğlu Hamamı
Address: Ismail Gürkan Caddesi n° 34
Open: Everyday, from 8 to 20 for women, from 8 to 22 for men

It’s probably the most famous of Istanbul hamams, built in 1741, has an impressive and fascinating architecture. It is introduced by the New York Times in the list of the 1000 places to visit in the World. Unfortunately, for this reason it is mobbed by tourists from all over the world as the owners take advantage of the popularity and service quality goes down. Treatment with “kese/ bath gloves” costs 30 euros, when one complete bath with massage costs about 50 euros! Moreover, you will be forced to buy gloves and soap before they chase you for a tip. The procedure takes a few minutes and it is hard to enjoy the atmosphere in the tourist crowd.

Çemberlitaş Hamamı
Address: Vezirhan Sokak n° 34
Open: : Everyday, from 6 am to midnight

The second most famous Hamam, which is also wonderful from the point of view of architectural and aesthetic, was built in 1584. The entrance ticket is all inclusive here and the price is cheaper than the Cağaloğlu Hamam. The service offered is preferable, and less “rude” and dismissive. There is still a couple of negatives, though: Staff’s insistance on the tip at the end and the tourist crowds.

Galatasaray Hamamı
Address: Turnacıbaşı Sokak n° 24
Open: Everyday, from 8 to 19 for women, from 7 to 22 for men

Galatasaray Hamamı was built in Beyoğlu district in 1715. It is also one of the most famous and touristic ones of the entire city. Unfortunately, has got very expensive prices, and treatments are certainly not worth the price.

Süleymaniye Hamamı
Address: Mimar Sinan Sokak n° 20
Open: Everyday from 8 am to midnight

Süleymaniye Hamamı is part of the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque complex. Built in 1557 and fully renovated in years. Among the “touristic” hamams, this definitely has the the best quality/price ratio. It allows only 32 people to enter at a time which is good, so you can fully enjoy such a peaceful experience. For this reason, it is necessary to make a booking, though(in fact it is difficult to find a vacancy since they have arrangements with the hotels). The price is 35 euro for the full treatment, the staff is kind, and above all, they don’t ask for a tip persistently. The hamam is suitable for only families and couples which is good for tourists. In order to keep the balance, they don’t allow single males or females, either.

Aya Sofia Hürrem Sultan Hamamı
Address: Bab-ı Hümayun Caddesi n° 1
Open: Everyday, from 7 to 23

Hürrem Sultan Hamamı is located right next to the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet, between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. In 2011, the historic hamam had a series of meticulous and respectful restoration work. The hamam dates back to 1556 as a work of the great architect Mimar Sinan. It was built where the ancient public baths of Zeuxippus (100-200 AD) used to stand, between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The area is also particularly significant as the site where the Temple of Zeus once stood. It is originally dedicated to Hürrem Sultan (the legendary Roxelana: a Ukranian slave who became the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent and custodian of enormous power afterwards). Here you will find a truly luxurious setting; a professional level massage, your own silk towel set, soaps and essential oils (all made in Anatolia) given to you at the entrance. Even the 160 bowls used for rinsing are gold plated! Obviously, prices are very high. You can choose between 4 different treatments with prices starting from 70 € up to 165 €.

Kasımpaşa Büyük Hamamı
Address: Potinciler Sokak No° 22
Open: Everyday, from 9 to 19 for women, from 5.30 to 22.30 for men

Even this hamam is one the works of Mimar Sinan and dates all the way back to the year 1533. This totally historic hamam is one of the largest of all in the city as the name “Büyük/Grand” itself addresses. It is located in Şişhane area which is an easy walk from Istiklal Street. It remains one of the last hamams of the district still frequently visited by locals. Therefore, it is recommended for those who are looking for a real hamam experience. It costs about 15 Euros.

Aziziye Hamamı
Address: Rıhtım Caddesi, Recaizade Sokak No° 17-19
Open: Everyday, from 8 to 19 for women, from 6 to 23 for men

Another good example of a hamam district, dates back to 1860 and was built during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz. Inside of the Hamam is decorated with Iznik ceramics and maintains the typical architecture of the baths with many rooms. It is located in the historic district of Yeldeğirmeni in Kadıköy, on the Asian side, an area in which Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in the past. The complete treatment of one hour massage and scrubbing costs about 15 Euros.

Beylerbeyi Hamamı
Address: Yalıboyu Caddesi No° 70
Open: Everyday, from 8 to 19 for women, from 6 to 22 for men

Another as yet little known hamam that deserves to be mentioned. This option may give you the most satisfying hamam experience in Istanbul, but you have to get to Beylerbeyi first which is located on the Asian side just after the first bridge over the Bosphorus. It is not difficult to get there, though. Just take the ferry from Beşiktaş to Üsküdar, and then take a bus to get there in 15-20 minutes. The hamam dates back to 1778, was built in honor of Rabia Sultan by the architect Mehmet Tahir Ağa. It is also a part of the Beylerbeyi Mosque which is near the beautiful Ottoman Palace (Beylerbeyi Sarayı) on the Bosphorus.

We hope our “hamam” discussion has given you an idea on this topic. If you have any further questions or would like some additional information, please do not hesitate to contact us. Also, we are looking forward to read your comments and impressions about your own hamam experiences in Istanbul. We are curious to know how it went!

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