Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, a visit to a traditional hammam is luxuriously familiar. Clothes, bags and phones are abandoned and stored in lockers. Bathers are swaddled in woven wraps and escorted into the heart of the bathhouse. The rituals vary slightly, depending on the country you’re in. In Turkey, the experience starts with the regional tradition of stretching out on the gobek last (warm marble “navel stone”). So far, so familiar? Think again. Because over the past 18 months, Istanbul’s newest hammams have inserted boutique hotel bling into the traditional scrub’n soak.
Many of the city’s ancient bathhouses have undergone multi-million-dollar renovations. Others offer personalised beauty treatments and shimmering new spaces for quiet contemplation. Private steam rooms and high-end organic products are the norm, wooing discerning residents and visitors alike. No longer are bathhouses simply a place for locals to doze and gossip. Nor are they merely a quirky activity for tourists to tick off their to-do list. In Western Asia’s most cosmopolitan metropolis, times have changed.
Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami – Streamlined but sumptuous, pared-down yet posh, Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami reopened to the public in 2012 after seven years of meticulous renovations. It’s tucked between the Bosphorus-side districts of Tophane, an area of docklands under arty gentrification, and Karakoy, set to be 2015’s neighbourhood du jour. The bathhouse takes its name from Italian-born Ottoman admiral Kilic Ali Pasa. It was the Pasa himself who commissioned Sinan, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s iconic architect, to design and oversee the building of this hammam and its mosque complex in 1580. The result: a historical space that soars to the sky – and offers ultra-modern spa services to boot. Push through the heavy wooden doors and the pampering starts immediately. Spa-goers are greeted with a glass of traditional fruity sherbet, freshly brewed from a family recipe courtesy of the owner’s septuagenarian mother. The complimentary hammam slippers are “Made in Italy”.
“Not only is visiting the hammam good for your skin,” explains Melike Safak, Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami’s youthful sales manager. “It’s also great for relieving stress, increasing circulation and relaxing the muscles. While [bathers here] experience a very old tradition, they also have all the comforts and luxury of today.” And how. Optional hour-long, full-body massages follow the more traditional treatments. Afterwards, bathers are encouraged to stretch out on snowy-white sofas in the lounge area, while attendants serve cups of jasmine tea or freshly pressed pomegranate juice. Copies of Vogue and Conde Nast Traveller (naturally) are on hand. The scene is topped off with a bubbling marble fountain at the centre of the reclining room.
Just outside the spa sits Derya, a small boutique purveying traditional cotton wraps (pestamal), scrubbing mitts woven from natural fibres (kese) and ornate copper bowls – so you can attempt to recreate the experience at home. Note that Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami is women-only from 8am to 4pm, and men-only from 4.30pm until 11.30pm daily.