Businesses sometimes advertise legacy. In the United States, a sign might read, “Betty’s Diner: Since 1967,” or, “Johnson’s Auto Repair: Serving You Since 1974.” Istanbul’s Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı also advertises its legacy. Mounted on the stone wall of the hamam beside two tall wooden doors is a sign like those you might find in the U.S. –– but there’s one difference. “Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı,” it reads. “1580.”
Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı was commissioned by Kılıç Ali Paşa, a 16th Century Grand Admiral of the Ottoman navy. The hamam was built along the Bosphorus Strait by renowned architect, Mimar Sinan, as part of a mosque and school complex intended for the use of Ottoman marine forces. Sinan is considered the greatest architect of the classical Ottoman period; he created over 300 major structures in his capacity as chief architect and civil engineer for three consecutive Ottoman sultans, and mentored the architects who would go on to design the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul and the Taj Mahal in the Mughal Empire. His style is characterized by his use of domes and semi-domes, hexagonal and octagonal spaces, and many windows. Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı has recently undergone an intensive seven-year renovation and each of these elements of Sinan’s work has been carefully preserved.
The Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı experience begins at its arched entryway. One step inside the hamam are attendants to direct and to guide –– English speaking attendants, and smiling. The reception and lounge area where they stage their welcome is large and square, lined with couches and pillows and post-hamamers buried in towels. There’s a small counter in one corner behind which a man pours cups of tea and tables in the middle of the room where customers drink it. Natural light from high windows reflects on a white marble floor that shines so clean, wearing shoes seems inappropriate.
First, you suit up. Fresh smelling towels and sandals individually wrapped in plastic are provided, along with the assurance of an attention to cleanliness. Towel-wrapped and ready, you’re then led by an attendant to the main bathing area of the hamam –– a large, hexagonal space capped with a dome full of small, star-shaped skylights. Along each marble wall are golden waterspouts and basins. In the center of the room is a heated marble slab that reflects the hexagonal shape of the space. Everything is white, wet, and steaming.
Moving into the bathing area is like lowering oneself into a warm bath. But at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, one does very little himself. First, an attendant seats you by a basin and douses you with warm water. Wet and steaming and fitting in much better now, you’re invited to lie on the slab. There you’re left for about 20 minutes, warming up, gazing up, and, most probably, sleeping. Awake again (but barely), you’re brought back to the basin. Sitting hunched on the steps there, you’re scrubbed, soaped, shampooed, and rubbed. All the time, water spills from the basin and runs over you and the walls and the floor and it seems like every dirty thing that ever existed is carried away in its stream. Periodically, the attendant splashes himself with water. When the bath is over, you’re dried, wrapped in at least three towels, led back to the main lounge area, given tea, and seated with the other post-hamamers to melt into a pillowed coach on the edge of the room in a thoughtless clean-coma.
A bath at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı is total luxury. But this isn’t a place Turkish people come to bathe regularly or casually; much of the clientele is Western and foreign. Thanks to its reservation system, though, the hamam is never overcrowded and other bathers are hardly noticeable. In fact, little is noticeable during a bath at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı –– little apart from the beauty and age of the building, the warmth of the water, and the cleanness of your skin.