I had a great interview with the owner of Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam in Istanbul. I asked Mr. İren about the history of Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam, Turkish bathing, and his motivations for doing such business. Here are my notes that would help you understand the Turkish hamam culture, and how it's been shaped in the recent centuries.
Hamams have been a place for relaxation and also socialization for Turkish people since the Ottoman times. It has spread all over the geography, including Europe and the Middle East. Hamam is marked with its overheated rooms in order to release the dirt and toxins from the body. Afterwards the “tellak”, a hamam worker, rubs your body with a coarse bath-glove. It is very common to go to hamam with friends and have fun there. It is also a tradition for brides to visit hamam before wedding with their friends and family.
Recently I have talked to the manager of Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam, namely Ergin İren, about the history and architecture of the hamam. He also gave me some very interesting information about hamams. Here are the highlights of our interview:
Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam was built in 1580 by the renowned Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan – the Great Sinan. Kılıç Ali Paşa whom the hamam was named after, was an Italian-Ottoman Admiral (and before than a pirate). After commanding the only ship that could make its way back from the Battle of Lepanto (İnebahtı Battle), which was a huge defeat for the Ottoman navy, he was appointed as the Grand Admiral and began rebuilding the Ottoman navy. Finally he became the governor of Algeria and ordered the Great Sinan to build Kılıç Ali Paşa Külliye (a complex of communal facilities surrounding a mosque) including the mosque and the hamam together. It is said that Kılıç Ali Paşa Külliye is a miniature of the Hagia Sophia Külliye. Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam has the second largest hamam dome in Istanbul. It was built in the purpose of serving the levends, the Ottoman marine soldiers, During Ottoman reign, though it did not have a separate section for women at the time.
Kılıç Ali Paşa adopted the hypocaust heating system of Roman baths, like many other Ottoman hamams during that era. However, the characteristic of Turkish hamam differ from the Roman baths. Turkish hamam is a closed area, which is covered with a dome, and serves a simple purpose of bathing, serving to both women and men, or to men only. Roman baths, however, were quite different: people would swim in swimming pools, exercise or take care of their skin in large and open areas. In Ottoman-style baths, there were both hot and cold water, which did not exist in Europe at that time.
Hamams have three different sections with different temperature levels:
Soğukluk (also called camegah, camekan), the cold section (approximately ~20C),
Ilıklık, the warm section (~30C),
Sıcaklık, the hot and overheated bathing room (~40C).
The idea is to enter the hamam slowly through these sections, and exit in the same way minimizing the effect of heat difference on the body. Warm section used to be dedicated for the children and elderly people for bathing purposes, however, today’s hamam is serving the bath takers only with its hot section. Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam is special for having two warm sections, serving as the entrance and exit paths today.
What does Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam Care About?
Bathing culture is dynamic and ever changing according to Mr. İren. Hamams have changed and evolved gradually since the 12th century to respond to people's needs. The mezzanine part of the Kılıç Ali Paşa hamam was placed around the 18th/19th century. People used to come with their bag of clothes and change in the shared space. Separate rooms were introduced around the same time and somewhat compromised the social environment of hamams. People preferred to relax in their private rooms, rather than being with other hamam patrons. Due to the need for a private place where customers can leave their belongings, Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam has lockers upstairs and couches downstairs for a more social environment as it had in the past.
Skin rubbing-spume-massage services are offered at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam. According to Mr. İren, there is no evidence whether the same services were also given back in the 16th century. In the old paintings, we can see that naked women eating grapes and zeytinyağlı dolma (stuffed vine leaves) on the central stone (göbek taşı), he says. However, the historical records don’t show any evidence regarding the nudity in the hamam as well as the food parties. Nudity in hamam was forbidden during Ottoman time and people would avoid any physical contact when taking bath. Kılıç Ali Paşa has an octagonal navel stone (göbek taşı) where up to 10 people can loll around at the same time.
We are trying to stay loyal to the old traditions of the hamam, and it’s physical constraints. If Sinan, wanted everyone to be on the central stone, then he would design it accordingly, and make it huge. We are not trying to overload the space and have our limits for the accommodating the maximum amount of bathers, who can enjoy the space at the same time.
We want people to feel like home when they visit Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam, though, this is not a luxurious place to make people feel flattered. It serves a simple and healthy purpose. For instance, skin rubbing can't be done induvidually. You need tellak's help for that. Hamam is a place for health and Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam knows it very well. Spume process is part of the show, but the real thing is the body rubbing with bath glove. A good-quality bath glove is quite expensive as it is hand-sewn and treated with wax. Brand new bath glove cannot be used on a customer. It has to be used over and over. The more a bath glove is used, the better it gets. The hair on the glove disappear in time and reach to the bottom end. That is when a bath glove is in its best shape. Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam knows all about these knacks. Therefore, the hygen issue becomes very important, and it is an one of the most curicial part of Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam's business. They always keep their gloves washed properly, and keep them hygenic.
What Are the First Reactions from the foreigners visiting here?
People who visit a hamam for the first time leave with a feeling of exploration. Although there are other ways of skin peeling and scrubbing, the experience hamam offers is different because the bath glove is the most effective way of peeling. Their customers usually say “I feel very relaxed, but why am I so?” and then want to come again, says Mr. İren. Finally Mr. İren invites all people visiting Istanbul to take a bath in a hamam as it is one of the most unique experiences that Istanbul has to offer.