ISTANBUL // Old Istanbul's bath houses were popular for centuries before modern bathrooms sent them into decline, but their appeal to tourists and the growth of the spa industry promises a revival. Developers are spending millions of dollars buying and restoring Istanbul's finest hammams, or steam baths, after decades of neglect. They are banking on rising tourist numbers and a surge of interest among Turks in Ottoman customs.
"There is a good future for hammams. People have realised they are a strong business and there is a lot of interest in buying or managing them," said Aydin Bulut, manager of the Suleymaniye hammam. His bath was built in 1557 by Mimar Sinan, the prolific architect behind some of Istanbul's most celebrated structures. Price tags are high. Istanbul's Cagaloglu Hammam, built in 1741 and boasting Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Florence Nightingale among its visitors, is on sale for $16 million (Dh59m), according to the estate agency Remax Turkey.
The smaller Ayakapi hammam, also built by Sinan but not currently used as a bath, is for sale for $3m, the agency said. The success of the handful of tourist-focused historic baths, including the Cagaloglu, where a scrub and massage can cost up to $55, has persuaded developers of the business potential of Istanbul's dozens of other hammams. Tourists are keen to experience them, their imaginations fuelled by tales of the sensuous Orient. Turkey had 26.3 million visitors in 2008 and aims to attract an annual 63 million by 2023 with a programme to boost infrastructure and market new destinations and holiday themes, including health and wellness.
Foreigners' eagerness to visit the centuries-old hammams has helped reignite Turks' interest, which declined decades ago with the availability of hot water at home, said Nurhan Atasoy, resident scholar of the Turkish Cultural Foundation. "When I hear my foreign friends wanting to go to hammams and talking about their experiences I envy them. I think I ought to look into it again," said Ms Atasoy, 75, who went to hammams as a child with her mother before switching to showers.
The baths' revival reflects a wider pattern of resurgent interest in Ottoman life in Turkey, a state founded in 1923 after the chaotic collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In its early decades Turkey emphasised modernity and break with tradition. "Since the 1980s everything Ottoman has been in vogue," said Nina Ergin, an Ottoman expert at Istanbul's Koc University. "At first the revival was orientated to tourists, but then people started to realise the value of Ottoman artefacts and traditions and wanted to find out more about their own past."
Scores of tourists and Turks alike now puff on waterpipes, or shishas, which were once seen as obsolete because of the development of the cigarette. Interest in hammams also dovetails with a rising "spa and wellness" trend in Turkey, Ms Ergin said. "A lot of people are realising that with hammams they have these really old, beautiful wellness centres already in their country, and are thinking, 'why don't we go to them?'," she said.
No official figures are available for the value of the spa and hammam industry but Zeki Karagulle the director of Turkey's Spa Association, said visitor numbers were increasing. Hammams are recognisable by their thick stone walls, domed roofs and series of cupolas. Once inside, visitors relax in a hot, humid marble chamber lit by shafts of light from above, and allow the moisture to soften and penetrate their skin.
An attendant swathed in a traditional chequered sheet, called a pestemal, then scrubs the body vigorously with an abrasive cloth, removing dead skin and leaving the layer beneath so smooth it gleams. An invigorating dousing with water follows, and visitors are left to stretch out on the hot marble stone at the centre of the chamber, heated from beneath by air circulating from a wood-burning furnace.
The look of bliss on their faces speaks for itself. "I think hammams could be fashionable again within a very short period if they are nicely run," said Ergin Iren, 33. "Tourists would come first, but then Turks would come too." He had never been to a traditional hammam until a friend showed him a disused bath for sale in Istanbul's old city. "He thought of turning it into a disco. I felt so sad about this it started me thinking about old hammams. I read up on the history, how they worked, and then dreamed of buying one."
In 2005 Mr Iren got his chance, buying a bath house built in the 1580s by Sinan. Scaffolding now surrounds the Kilic Ali Pasa hammam in Tophane, by the Bosphorus. Mr Iren hopes it will open in 2010 as an exclusive, probably reservation-only hammam. The hammam tradition developed in Muslim countries because of Islam's emphasis on cleanliness and washing, but they also fulfilled an important social function, with men and women spending hours inside gossiping and relaxing.
Sometimes, as in the case of the Kilic Ali Pasa hammam, they were part of a mosque complex, hence their magnificent architecture: they were intended to provide an income source to the religious institutions via entrance fees. "For women especially, they were a place to get away from their families and if a husband couldn't pay for a trip to the hammam at least once every two weeks it was a grounds for divorce," Mr Ergin said. "They were a very important space like a beauty salon or a spa today."
Brides would meet female friends in hammams before their weddings, and the Sultan's concubines and favourites would take to the hammam to make themselves most fragrant and alluring. For men it was a place to socialise and repose, and also, reputedly, to indulge in more decadent pleasures. Sultan Selim II is said to have died in 1574 after slipping and banging his head in a hammam while drunk. Turkey's restored hammams will be much more refined.