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Finding enlightenment in a Turkish bath

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The architecture of a traditional Istanbul hammam is easier to comprehend than that of a mosque. Flora Neville subjects herself to a pounding

‘What is required,’ of a mosque, wrote Le Corbusier in his 1910 book Le Voyage D’Orient, ‘is a silent place with a face turned toward Mecca. The space must be vast so that the heart may feel at ease; and high, so that prayers have air to breathe.’

I spent a few days in November on a research trip for an upcoming book and exhibition produced by the AJ with media partner Turkishceramics, looking around the Turkish mosques of Mimar Sinan, who was the most prolific Ottoman architect. Between 1538 and his death in 1588, Sinan served as the chief architect to three separate Sultans, during which time he built 323 structures, including 81 large mosques. For the local community, then and now, these mosques are much more than just places of worship. They are the nucleus of a külliye or complex, made up of public baths, shops, schools, gardens and mausoleums. These külliyes are not places you visit, they are places you belong to; where you wash and learn and pray and sell and buy and finally lie to rest.

The hammam is a ritual that, like the restoration of the building, is firmly rooted in tradition

Not having much success with the free literature handed out in the mosques, I thought I could enter into the spirit of külliye life through the more accessible hammam door. Sinan’s most famous hammam is in the Tophane district of Istanbul, which is in the midst of a Shoreditch-style regeneration. The hammam was originally built in 1580 as part of the Kilic Ali Pasa Külliye, named after the Italian-born Muslim convert and navy admiral, who rose up through the ranks from slavery and made his way into Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Battered by earthquakes, and generally neglected in the 20th century, the hammam fell into disrepair and was only restored to its former glory in 2011.

The hammam’s entrance is on a busy road that runs along the Bosphorus, from which the large, cool reception room – the Camegah – is a calm retreat. In the first stage of restoration, 500m³ of rubble was removed from this room, and it has the look of a building just unwrapped. The sound of the water in the newly built hexagonal marble fountain is largely absorbed by the stone and brick.

The dome rises over the room like a beehive, supported only by weight-bearing walls. Unlike the domes in the mosques, it is entirely unadorned, but bears the distinctive mark of Sinan’s masonry technique – one layer of limestone called Kufeki and two or more layers of brick bound by salmon pink horasani mortar. The light is very soft, and trickles in through one large window of a tympanum and the skylight at the top of the dome. The restoration project restored the dome using techniques and craftsmanship from Sinan’s day. A key main motivation for restoring the hammam, one of the receptionists told me, was to revive historic building techniques and traditional materials. After all, these age-old techniques produced structures that withstood earthquakes, wars, and mass redevelopment.

From start to finish, the hammam is a ritual that, like the restoration of the building, is firmly rooted in tradition. You are given a shot of something sherbetty and pink, before shedding your clothes for a peshtemal: a beautifully made pink and white striped piece of cloth. When it’s your turn, you are taken (literally in hand) by your natir – your washer woman – into the Sicaklik or hot room, the walls and floor of which are made of grey-white marble.

Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami

Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami

This room has a very different atmosphere to the Camegah. The splashing and crashing of water echoes on the hard marble, loud enough to drown out conversation completely. Likewise the light is bright white and hard. After you have had your initial drenching, you lie on a hot hexagonal slab of marble, looking up at the white dome with cut-out shapes. Drops of condensation from the steam tumble from the glass like shooting stars.

The natir leaves you beached on the slab for a while, before shaking you by the ankle for stage two. This part is more brutal. The natir has an industrial attitude to cleaning; scrubbing at your skin until it literally comes off and throwing alternately scalding and freezing water over your head. Her approach eases any awkwardness, as you cede all control of muscles and limbs to this woman who, as Michael Palin once remarked of a masseur, ‘has few words and many pounds’.

‘First time in the hammam?’ she asked me with a hint of disparagement. ‘Can you tell?’ I replied. She laughed and a barrier was broken. ‘I’m in Istanbul researching Mimar Sinan,’ I said. ‘Ah! Sinan,’ she said and looked at me for the first time. ‘Our Sinan.’ Then she dipped a muslin pillow case in a steel bucket of soapy water and covered me in a cloud of bubbles.

Two hours later, and back on the streets, I, like the building, felt restored to my former glory. After three packed days and four late nights on the Sinan research trip, I was a little jaded, and the hammam was like an injection of undiluted sprightliness, which I think was a little annoying to my unclean colleagues.

Rituals and traditions in Islamic architecture are extremely evident in the mosques, from the segregation of the sexes to bowing to the east, but I didn’t feel like I had enough knowledge or insight to understand. In the hammam, meanwhile, without prior knowledge or understanding, I was immersed into a ritual that has taken place in this magnificent structure for more than 500 years. My heart was at ease, and my prayers had air to breathe.

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