Zeyrek Çinili Hamam: The 500-year-old hamam bringing Istanbul's past to life

Closed to the public for more than a decade, the stunning Zeyrek Çinili Hamam has just reopened its wooden doors to the world.
The refurbishment has created a luxurious relaxation zone. Photo credit: Murat Germen

Closed to the public for more than a decade, the stunning Zeyrek Çinili Hamam has just reopened its wooden doors to the world. Located in Istanbul's Zeyrek neighbourhood - on the European side of the Bosporus, adjacent to the historic Fatih district - the bathhouse was built in the 1530s by Mimar Sinan, the architect-in-chief to illustrious Ottoman sultans such as Suleiman the Magnificent.

"Çinili" means "tiled" in Turkish, highlighting the hamam's most prominent interior design feature; the bathouse was once covered in thousands of bright blue Iznik tiles.

Open for five centuries, serving the public mostly as a hamam but briefly as a saddlery and a storeroom in the late 1700s, the hamam was rather dilapidated by the time it closed in 2010. The walls were covered in mould, their covering of Iznik tiles nowhere to be seen.

The hamam reopened temporarily in 2022 for the Istanbul Biennial, and is now about to get a whole new lease of life.

After a 13-year closure, Çinili Hamam will reopen on September 30: first as an exhibition venue; then, from March 2024, as a public bath once more, with segregated sections for men and women.

As well as receiving a full face lift, the hamam will also get a contemporary art space beneath the arches of the Byzantine cistern that once filled its brass taps with water, a new museum that pieces together the building's history, and a laurel-filled urban garden. It marks the second major historical restoration project by real estate developers The Marmara Group, which bought the building in 2010.

Digging up the past

"When we bought the hamam, we didn't know any of the stories behind it. But in Zeyrek, wherever you dig, you find something," says Koza Yazgan, the project's creative director.

"In the men's section we found these rectangular tiles, different from the [usual] hexagonal ones. They were on the wall and had this Farsi poem [with different verses on each tile]. We translated and researched them and found they had been misplaced at some point - they weren't where Sinan had originally placed them."

When the hamam was first built, the walls were covered in around 10,000 tiles, but only a few remain. Some were misplaced, others stolen, and some were damaged by fires and earthquakes.

Tiles were even sold to foreign museums in the late 19th century - the Marmara Group have traced many to faraway private collections and museums, including London's V&A. A team of archaeologists and historians at the hamam helped those institutions to identify exactly where their Iznik tiles came from.

As for the mysterious Farsi tiles, Yazgan continues, "We decided not to leave them where we found them, but to exhibit them in the museum."

Designed by German firm Atelier Brüeckner - whose previous projects include the much anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Louvre, Abu Dhabi - the Çinili Hamam's museum will showcase some of the many Roman, Ottoman and Byzantine artefacts found during the restoration, from coins to unusual graffiti of foreign ships.

The Zeyrek Çinili Hammam was originally built in the 1530s.
The Zeyrek Çinili Hammam was originally built in the 1530s. Photo credit: Murat Germen

Visitors can also peruse an array of eclectic objects used by past hamam-goers, including sparkling mother-of-pearl clogs called nalin.

Naturally, a whole floor of the museum will be dedicated to the hamam's incredible Iznik tiles - the pièce de resistance being a futuristic augmented reality (AR) display that transports you to the bathhouse as it was in Mimar Sinan's day, digitally overlaying the white walls in their full turquoise-tiled glory.

It's an impressive attempt to reconstruct something long gone, but Yazgan considered it necessary. "Considering how the city has changed over the last 20 years, I think it's more important than ever to protect these historic sites. Otherwise, they will all be lost," she says.

Beautiful, inside and out

Though its tiered timber houses initially sprung up around the wealthy 12th-century Pantokrator Monastery - now Zeyrek Mosque - Zeyrek is a distinctly working-class district today.

Life centres on the spice and meat markets that spill out onto the streets, while the fruity scent of home-cooked perde pilavı (a chicken, grapes and rice dish from a less affluent region of eastern Turkey) emanates from the restaurants.

While it's part of the UNESCO-listed area of Istanbul, Zeyrek is nothing like the nearby Ayasofya neighbourhood, where Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace all stand. Here, foreign tourists are a rarity.

The streets of Zeyrek produce a lot of noise, and the over 30,000-square-foot hamam offers a peaceful escape.

A kem göz (evil eye) dangles from the front door, ensuring any ill-meaning spirits stay outside. Exactly as it would have been 500 years ago, the oak door is heavy and thick - only, it's so new, it still has that straight-off-the-sawmill smell.

Once the threshold is crossed, the visitor moves through a series of three rooms, a process typical of all Turkish baths. The first is the "cold" (or, more accurately, room-temperature) room, the camekan, where guests are invited to undress and relax. Reclining on couches, admiring the architecture and sipping on hot Turkish tea or coffee are all encouraged.

Next is the warm room - a dry seating area where the body acclimatises to temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit). The last room is the steamy hararet, heated up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) and containing a flat marble slab.

"You lie on the göbek taşı - the 'belly stone' - and relax," says Yazgan. "It's a cleaning space, both spiritually and physically… one hour of getting away from earthly things." Robed attendants wash and massage their supine clients there.

Inside the hot room of the Zeyrek Çinili Hamam.
Unusual hexagonal panels feature on the walls of the men's hot room. Photo credit: Sıtkı Kösemen

Ottoman know-how and seamless minimalism come together inside the Çinili Hamam to create the ultimate zone-out space. Scandi-style wooden cabinets, lockers and door stops prevent the modern facilities from feeling too clinical.

The glass stars on the domed ceilings (a signature of Ottoman hamam design) allow just enough natural light to shimmer in, but not so much that it dazzles. Original Ottoman details are showcased to stimulate the mind - sections of the original brickwork, Sinan's structural reinforcements, and the kaleidoscopic Iznik tiles - but they never disrupt the atmosphere of tranquillity.

Coming back to life

Initially, while the hamam's bathing rooms are still dry, the Çinili Hamam will host a one-off contemporary art exhibition with specially commissioned works dedicated to themes of ruin, history and healing, three words which sum up the place.

Once the exhibition closes in March 2024, the baths will be pumped with water and returned to their original function. Yazgan says the Zeyrek Çinili Hamam will closely replicate time-honoured Ottoman bathtime traditions.

Instead of Swedish massages and scented oils, there'll be hot and humid rooms, joint-cracking chiropractic treatments and bubble-based massages in which clouds of puffy lather are scrubbed into the skin.

However, Yazgan highlights one 21st-century distinction that sets Çinili apart from Turkey's uber-traditional hamams.

"Usually in hamams, the design of the men's section is taller and more elaborate. They have more muqarnas (decorated vaulted ceilings) and tiles. But we'll have rotating days for each [gendered] section, so everybody can enjoy each side."

'A microcosm of Istanbul'

Seeing the hamam's pristine, empty chambers now, it's hard to envision it filled with people. Stepping into the garden, where only a thin layer of shrubbery masks the raw goat legs on display in the butcher's shops, it also seems slightly out of place with its surroundings.

But the Marmara Group believes that the newly restored hamam could alter the dynamic of the neighbourhood completely, utilising its underrated historic sites to turn Zeyrek into a destination for cultural tourism.

"Even the local shopkeepers are asking, 'Should I sell soaps or peshtemals [traditional Ottoman towels]?' We're even thinking of doing a 'Zeyrek map' showing where hamam guests can visit other attractions in the area, or eat in a historical space," says Yazgan.

There's plenty to do: besides the Zeyrek Mosque, the monumental Roman Aqueduct of Valens and the baroque Süleymaniye Mosque (Mimar Sinan's magnum opus) are all within a 15-minute walk.

While a rise in visitor numbers could put the neighbourhood at risk of gentrification, the hamam has the potential to join Istanbul's ever-expanding portfolio of cool cultural venues: somewhere one can immerse themselves in Istanbul's cosmopolitan past, taking part in an old ritual.

"With the museum, relaxation element and historical layers, [the hamam] is like a microcosm of Istanbul," says Yazgan.

It's certainly set to be the only place in the city where you can learn something new, have an AR experience, drink a cup of coffee, get undressed in public - and still feel relaxed when you come out.