Visit a 16th-century hammam that has been sensitively revived for the modern age.
Stepping off a frenetic main street in central Istanbul and into the Zeyrek Cinili Hamam feels like discovering a portal to the city’s distant past. The din outside fades instantly to a hushed calm in a space where every sound echoes between the marble floor and high dome.
The original tiled hammam was completed between the 1530s and 1540s to a design by architect Mimar Sinan, who was responsible for some of the most iconic buildings of the Ottoman Empire’s golden age. It was a trinket for Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, the grand admiral of the Ottoman navy, who commissioned it as he neared the end of his career. But Sinan wasn’t just an architect: he was an engineer who fine-tuned every aspect of his spaces to optimise their acoustics, climate and light.
The hammam stayed in use as Istanbul mushroomed and the Ottoman Empire collapsed around it. The Zeyrek neighbourhood degenerated into a dilapidated corner of the city and the building entered the 21st century as a mouldy relic with most of its original features obscured. In 2010 it was bought by The Marmara Group, a property and hospitality company with solid credentials in art and architecture. Restoration was expected to take two to three years. But Zeyrek sits on a historic peninsula: dig anywhere and you’ll find something. The soil yielded clues to the hammam’s past, including fragments of the original interior tiles. While laying the foundations of an adjacent office building, the team realised that there was a Byzantine cistern underneath. In the end, the restoration took 13 years.
“The most exciting part was uncovering the stories,” says Koza Gureli Yazgan, the founding director of the Zeyrek Cinili Hamam and a third-generation leader of The Marmara Group. “It wasn’t about the end goal for me. It was about the process. The cistern was really unexpected. It took the history of the plot 1,500 years back in time. The hammam is 500 years old but now we are looking at the Byzantine era.”
The rebooted hammam reveals its layers. Sinan’s tiles have left traces on the inner walls but, rather than restore them, the team kept the layers that had been slapped on top over the centuries. The spaces that were decorated with tiles are now covered with marble.
“You’re in Mimar Sinan’s building so your design shouldn’t stand out too much,” says Yazgan. “It’s a delicate balance.” The attached museum is open and, in future, the Indiana Jones-esque cistern will host site-specific art installations. The heating was switched on in December 2023; by spring, the hammam will be steamy enough to welcome bathers.
Monocle comment: Some practices stand the test of time, even if the places in which they’re conducted do not. But it is often better to revamp past glories than build anew – and a trip to the spa will leave you feeling revived too.