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Science&TechnologyArcheologyA 500-year-old hammam harkens back to Istanbul's ancient past

A 500-year-old hammam harkens back to Istanbul’s ancient past

Closed to the public for more than a decade, the stunning Zeyrek Çinili Hamam once again reveals its wonders to the world.

Located in Istanbul’s Zeyrek district, on the European side of the Bosphorus, adjacent to the historic Fatih district, the bathhouse was built in 1530 by Mimar Sinan – the chief architect of famous Ottoman sultans such as Suleiman the Magnificent.

“Chinili” means “covered with tiles” in Turkish, which highlights the most striking feature of the hammam’s interior design – it was once covered with thousands of bright blue nikk tiles.

Open for five centuries, serving the public mostly as a hammam but also briefly as a warehouse in the late 1700s, the hammam was in a state of disrepair until it closed in 2010.

Its walls are covered with mold and the tiles have almost disappeared. The hammam was temporarily opened in 2022 for the Istanbul Biennale, but now it’s about to take on a whole new life.

After 13 years of oblivion, Chinili Hammam welcomes guests again: first as an exhibition space, then, from March 2024, as a public bath with separate sections for men and women.

As well as getting a complete facelift, the hammam will also gain a space for contemporary art under the arches of the Byzantine cistern that once released water from its brass taps, a new museum that showcases the history of the building and a garden full of laurel plants, writes CNN.

This is the second major historic restoration by real estate company The Marmara Group, which bought the building in 2010.

Revealing the past

“When we bought the hammam, we didn’t know any of its history. But in Zeyrek, wherever you dig, you find something,” says Koza Yazgan, the project’s creative director.

“In the men’s section we found rectangular tiles, different from the regular hexagonal ones. They were on the wall and were inscribed with a poem in Farsi, each tile having a different verse. We translated them, studied them and found that they had been lost at some point – they were not where Sinan originally placed them,” he adds.

When the hammam was first built, the walls were covered with about 10,000 tiles, but only a few have survived. Some were lost, others stolen, and others damaged by fires and earthquakes. The tiles were even sold to foreign museums in the late 19th century – the Marmara Group has traced many of them to far-flung private collections and cultural institutions, including the V&A in London.

A team of archaeologists and historians at the hammam helps them identify exactly where their tiles originated. As for the mysterious Farsi tiles, Yazgan continues: “We decided not to leave them where we found them, but to display them in the museum.”

Designed by German firm Atelier Brüeckner, whose previous projects include the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, the Chinili Hammam Museum will display some of the many Roman, Ottoman and Byzantine artefacts discovered during the hammam’s restoration – from coins to unusual graffiti on foreign ships.

Visitors will be able to view an array of eclectic objects used by visitors to the bath in the past, including sparkling mother-of-pearl clogs called nalin.

An entire floor of the museum will be dedicated to the incredible iznik tiles – a futuristic augmented reality display will transport visitors to the bathhouse of Mimar Sinan’s time, covering the white walls in their full turquoise glow.

It’s an impressive attempt to reconstruct something long gone, but Yazgan sees it as necessary. “Given how the city has changed in the last 20 years, I think it’s more important than ever to protect these historic places. Otherwise, they will all be lost,” she says.

The timeless beauty

Although its multi-story wooden structures originally sprang up around the wealthy 12th-century monastery of Pantokrator, today Zeyrek is a working-class neighborhood.

Life centers around the spice and meat markets, while the fruity aroma of homemade perde pilavı (chicken, grape and rice dish from Eastern Turkey) wafts from the restaurants.

Although part of the UNESCO-listed area of Istanbul, Zeyrek is nothing like the nearby Hagia Sophia district, home to Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. Foreign tourists are very rare here.

The streets of the neighborhood are very noisy, and the hammam with an area of more than 2,800 square meters offers a peaceful escape from them.

Kem göz (evil eye) hangs on the front door, ensuring that all malicious spirits stay out. Just as it would have been 500 years ago, the oak door is heavy and thick – only it’s so new it still has the smell of a sawmill.

After crossing the threshold, the visitor passes through three rooms – a typical process for all Turkish baths. The first is the “cold” one (or more precisely with room temperature), in which the guests relax. Resting on the sofas with hot coffee or tea is recommended.

Next is the hot room – a dry area in which the body acclimatizes to temperatures of about 30 degrees Celsius. The last room is the steam haaret, heated to 50 degrees Celsius.

“It’s a place of purification – both spiritually and physically. An hour’s escape from earthly things,” says Yazgan. Clothed attendants wash and massage their clients in this area.

Ottoman know-how and impeccable minimalism come together in Chinili Hammam to create the ultimate relaxation space.

The glass stars on the domed ceilings allow enough natural light to enter, but not to irritate the eyes. The original Ottoman details stimulate the mind, but do not disturb the atmosphere of tranquility.

The new life

Initially, while the hammam’s baths are still dry, Chinili will host a one-off contemporary art exhibition with special works dedicated to the themes of ruin, history and healing – three words that sum up the history of the place.

After the exhibition ends in March 2024, the baths will be filled with water and returned to their original function. Yazgan says the hammam will accurately replicate Ottoman bathing traditions.

Instead of Swedish massages and scented oils, there will be hot and humid rooms, various chiropractic treatments and bubble massages.

However, Yazgan highlights something that will set Cinili apart from traditional hammams in Turkey.

“Usually in hammams, the design of the men’s section is higher and more elaborate. They have more vaulted ceilings and tiles. But here there will be rotating days for each section so that everyone can enjoy the beauty of the bath, regardless of his gender.”

The microcosm of Istanbul

The Marmara Group believes that the newly restored hammam can completely change the neighborhood’s dynamics, using its underrated historical sites to turn Zeyrek into a cultural tourism destination.

“We plan to make a ‘Zeyrek map’ showing where hammam guests can visit other attractions in the area or dine in a historic space,” says Yazgan.

There are many sites to visit in the area: the Zeyrek Mosque, the monumental Roman Aqueduct of Valens and the Baroque Süleymaniye Mosque are within a 15-minute walk.

And while increasing visitor numbers may put the neighborhood at risk of over-tourism, the hammam has the potential to join Istanbul’s ever-expanding portfolio of notable cultural sites: where one can immerse oneself in the city’s cosmopolitan past, participating in an old ritual.

“With the museum, relaxation rooms and historical artifacts, the hammam is like a microcosm of Istanbul,” says Yazgan.

Photo: zeyrekcinilihamam.com

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