The Age of Steam

January 17, 2010

ISTANBUL Shafts of misty light pierce the steam of the Ca?alo?lu hamam in Istanbul’s Eminönü district, once the heart of walled Constantinople and the seat of the Ottoman Sultanate. Built by Sultan Mahmud I in 1741 to provide revenue for the Haghia Sophia mosque, its marble rooms are opulent, timeless pleasure-domes of fountains and gilded columns. In the women’s section, a pleasant gabble of feminine voices mingles with the sound of sluicing water; the bathers gossip languidly, gently washing one another’s hair. Nothing could be more authentically Turkish than this.

Or so the tourists like to imagine it.

Outside the hamam, engraved in stone on the pavement, are the words “I,000 Places to See Before You Die.” The words come from The New York Times, and they are written in English. There is no Turkish translation—not surprisingly, because most Turks will die before entering this place. The entranceway features a montage of photos of Kate Moss, half-naked and styled as a jeweled Ottoman courtesan. Of all the models in the world, Kate Moss must be the leading candidate for “least convincing Ottoman,” but she is certainly part of a long tradition of Western women who enjoy playing the role.

“I’ve never been to a real hamam,” says Çi?se Baranok, an equally pretty native Istanbullu with a keen interest in fashion and beauty. “I don’t think it’s as hygienic as a personal bathtub, and since I have a bathtub in my house, it would be impractical to go out for a bath.”

Of approximately 150 public hamams of the Ottoman era, only a handful are still operational. They are, undoubtedly, magnificent architectural treasures, but since the advent of modern plumbing, only tourism—and the well-cultivated Western fantasy of the authentic Istanbul hamam experience—has kept these monuments in business. According to Cihan Girgin of the Ca?alo?lu hamam, at least 80 percent of the guests are tourists. “It’s expensive, for local customers,” he says, adding that Turks are put off by the neighborhood tourist touts, whose values he describes in unprintable language.

But Turkey is now experiencing a revived enthusiasm for all things Ottoman, from architecture to foreign policy, and suddenly, Turks themselves are wondering about the authentic Turkish hamam experience. “The number of Turks who come is rising—slowly,” says Girgin. A flurry of articles have appeared in the international and local press about a Turkish hamam revival, although it appears that one of the chief claims—that the Ca?alo?lu hamam is to be sold to spa-hungry development investors—is not so. That, Girgin explains, was an unfortunate rumor arising from a complicated family feud. It has all been settled now, he says.

Hamams were a focus of Istanbul’s social activity during the Ottoman era, when society was strictly sexually segregated and organized around Islamic ritual, and the mosque complexes to which they belonged were the natural centers of urban life. The Westernizing reformers of the 19th century Tanzimat period, however, had their doubts: A modern city, they believed, should be organized around plazas and wide boulevards, like Paris.

The urban planners of the newborn Turkish Republic were even less enthusiastic about Ottoman Islamic architecture. Their ambitious modernization project involved replacing these gathering places with secular substitutes, such as public parks centered around looming statues of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Hamams were demolished to make room for concrete apartment blocks—with running water.

Since then, Turkey’s relationship to its Ottoman past, and to the Islamic architecture that symbolizes it, has been ambivalent. Hamams, in particular, were viewed by the early republican nationalists as un-Western. And this is just why Westerners have always loved them so. What, after all, could be more Eastern?

Visits to Ottoman-era hamams may no longer be an authentic Turkish tradition, but they are the pillar of an uninterrupted tourist tradition that may be traced to European travel writing of the sixteenth century. The English poet and novelist Julia Pardoe visited Constantinople in 1836 and breathlessly reported in her Beauties of the Bosphorus the “thick sulphate steam,” which “filled the whole space,” creating “an imaginary spectacle making me doubt whether I was dreaming or not.”

The “dream-like” lives of Turkish women, wrote the German writer Bernhard Stein in 1897, were passed in ”happy inactivity” in the hamams, where they spent their days “unveiled, in their patterned robes, smoking, gossiping, laughing, suckling their children or painting their faces.” The paintings of European Orientalists, Ingres in particular, featured Turkish hamams prominently; no European coffee table book about Turkey would be complete without photographs of them. Tourists, says Girgin, “don’t really know what a hamam is. But they read the guide book: ‘You can have a belly dance, go to the bazaar, go to a hamam. They don’t know exactly what’s going on, but they get interested.’”

Rachel Roberts, an American field artillery officer now stationed in Germany after a tour in Iraq, was visiting the Ca?alo?lu hamam on a holiday-weekend tour of the city. “I learned about it from Rick Steves,” she said, referring to the travel guide Rick Steves’ Istanbul, which she pulled from her handbag. She has been interested, she said, in the region’s bathhouse traditions since studying them in a college history class. Her friend Matthew Frost, also a soldier recently deployed to Iraq, expressed pleasure at the opportunity to experience Islamic culture without watching vigilantly for roadside bombs.

Tourism has long been one of the major sources of revenue for the Turkish economy, and Turks, by longstanding tradition, are exceptionally willing to please foreign guests. Thus have Turks been eager to offer their hamams to foreign visitors, albeit, perhaps, with some puzzlement at their peculiar tastes. There is the Suleymaniye Hamam, for example: Built, together with a madrassa, hospital, and lunatic asylum, by the legendary Ottoman architect Sinan, the bath house is part of the Suleymaniye mosque complex, the greatest achievement of Ottoman imperial architecture. It is also the only co-ed traditional hamam in the city. How a co-educational nearly-naked steam bath and massage parlor is doctrinally compatible with a mosque is anyone’s guess, but if you are seeking proof that Turkey is home to a particularly tolerant strain of Islam, look no further.

As a child, Girgin recalls, he was taken to a hamam only once. “I was frightened,” he remembers. It was not until adulthood, when he met his current business partner in a nightclub, that he realized hamams were good business. Now he is immensely proud of the hamam tradition: “Visitors can see the past. It still continues, like a dream.”

So, fortunately, thanks to dreamy tourists, the greatest of the hamams have been preserved—unlike quite a bit of Istanbul’s priceless heritage, which is all too often destroyed to make way for more profitable ventures. One beautiful example of preservation is the Çemberlita? hamam, near Ali Baba’s tomb, built in 1584 by Sinan for the sultan’s wife. The street level has since risen, and the entrance is now enveloped by tourist shops selling cheap knickknacks. But the interior is breathtaking: Around the bathing area, private cool cubicles with marble fountains are separated from the center by marble walls carved with blossoms and Ottoman couplets. The vast marble caldarium, lit naturally by crescent and moon-shaped windows carved into the dome of the cupola, is a wormhole in the tunnel of time that gives rise readily to fantasy; it is easy to imagine the women around you plotting palace intrigues, scheming to advance their sons’ careers and choose for them suitable wives, so long as you don’t think overmuch about their imminent return to Minnesota.

Rumors of an Ottoman revival in Turkey are hardly confined to hamams. Turkey’s government, led for the past seven years by the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has embraced a foreign policy often described, for better or worse, as neo-Ottomanism. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu is known for advocating a regional role for Turkey more closely resembling its imperial predecessor’s. Movies set in the Ottoman era such as “The Last Ottoman” have latterly been hits, as have television programs with an Ottoman theme, such as Noor. There is a growing demand for all manner of Ottoman kitsch, from tiles to faux-Ottoman furniture.

But there is a limit to Turkish patience with a truly Ottoman hamam experience: Upper-class Turkish women tend instead to frequent newly-built luxury spas with an Ottoman theme, such as the Sanda Spa in the modern, multi-story Istinye Park mall complex, or the Ottoman Spa at the new Four Seasons Hotel on the Bosphorus. The latter “takes its inspiration,” according to the brochure, from “the enduring mystique and unique qualities of the hamam,” and first opened its doors in 2007. The décor is faithfully recreated in carrera marble and very much resembles something Ottoman.

The literary critic Mary Louise Pratt has described the phenomenon of “autoethnography”—a representation of one’s own culture made in response to the way it has been portrayed in other cultures—and the revival of interest here in hamams, observes Nina Cichocki, an Ottoman architectural historian who has written extensively about the history of the Çemberlita? hamam, is an interesting example of it. ”Turks themselves,” Cichocki notes, “contribute to an Orientalist view of their heritage by selecting nineteenth-century Orientalist mentalities as the basis for twentieth-century urban preservation.”

As for the tourists, well, sometimes it is hard to live up to expectations, as evidenced by a conversation overheard at the Galatasaray hamam near the city’s main pedestrian boulevard, Istiklal Caddesi. A trio of tall, pale blondes—Scandinavians from the looks of it—sat on the marble stone, chattering in birdsong. They seemed vaguely disgruntled. One turned to another tourist and spoke to her in English. “Do you think we are hot?”


“In Finland a sauna is hotter. Much more hotter.”

“Oh. Yes, right. Of course.”

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