Four of the best Nowhere does the golden age of Ottoman life survive more vividly, and enjoyably, than in the Turkish city's hammams.
Bathing Ottoman style in Istanbul
For Charles White, writing in the early 1840s, the "Tchinelly Hammam" was "one of the neatest and most picturesque in the city". Zeyrek, close to the imperial Fatih Mosque and the Valencian Aqueduct, was a fashionable quarter with handsome wooden houses and views to the Golden Horn. Today it is a rough-and-tumble area, whose houses are home to poor immigrants from the east, and the baths are shabby, if picturesque. Gone is the portico that shaded the entrances to the men's and women's baths. In its place butchers hang goats' carcases. But, inside, Sinan's domes and geometry still work their magic.
Sinan built the baths in the 1540s for Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha, known to the West as Barbarossa, a former corsair who became the first naval commander to be honoured by the Sultan with the title of Grand Admiral and Governor-General of the Islands. The navy was close to Sinan's heart: in winter, while the Janissaries rested, it was the skilled galley slaves who did his building work - many earned their freedom when projects were completed.
In the "hot room", a few of the tiles that gave the hammam its name can still be seen: panels of hexagonal Iznik tiles, their glaze encrusted with lime from dripping whitewash, and a row of tiles inscribed with lines of sensual Persian verse comparing the "beauties" therein to those of paradise. The Çinili is a classic double hammam, for men and women. Leading back from the street is a sequence of domed halls, side by side: first the disrobing halls, then a wide, warm anteroom, and finally a hot room, marvellously austere but for the delicate pie-crust arches that support the dome and vaults. Nearby there was a deep well, filled in long ago, from which the water for the hammam was drawn by horses. But behind the baths you will still find the chambers of the külhanbey, the legendary league of stokers. Çinili Hammam, Itfaiye Cad 46, Zeyrek, Fatih, Istanbul (tel: 00 90 212 631 8883)
Splendid Renaissance baths still flourish at the entrance to Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Built for the mother of Sultan Murad III, the all-powerful Nurbânu, and opened in 1584, today the Çemberlitas Hammam is the liveliest of Istanbul's grand baths. Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Selim II, the intelligent, immensely wealthy patron of the Çemberlitas baths, best-loved and liveliest of Istanbul's "marketplace" hammams. A thimble in her huge property portfolio, the double baths (for men and women) were shrewdly located on the Divanyolu, the road leading to Ayasofya and the Topkap. Known until recently as the Valide Hamam, or Queen Mother's baths, they were designed by Sinan, builder of mosques for sultans, at the height of his genius. The hand of the great Renaissance architect is evident in the gently pointed arches, lace-like marble carving and classical elegance.
The baths are a soothing, contemplative contrast to the bustling bazaar a few feet away. The hammam owes its state of preservation to the fact that in the 1650s it came under the protection of another powerful patron, the grand vizier Köprülü Mehmed Pasha, who built his mausoleum directly opposite, and, next to the baths, the Vezir Han, a gigantic hotel-cum- shopping arcade which at one time had its own private passage to the hammam. Çemberlitas Hammam, Vezirhan Cad 8, Çemberlitad, Istanbul (www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr; 00 90 212 522 7974)
The Galatasaray Hammam in the European quarter, has long had the air of a gentleman's club. The hammam's history goes back to 1498, when Beyazd II built a preparatory school for bright Balkan children destined for the ultimate hothouse of Ottoman education, the Topkap Palace school. Both the palace school and the baths serving them were later abandoned, but a new hammam - the present one - was built on the foundations of the old in 1715, when Ahmet III revived the school in what was still virtually countryside. The association of the school with the baths continued when the school reopened its doors as the Galatasaray Lycée in the mid-19th century and became Turkey's school for diplomats. It had its own private entrance until the 1960s, and there were certain hours when the hammam was reserved strictly for students. It was still a regular haunt of Turkish diplomats well into the 1980s.
In 1965 the hammam was overhauled at great expense, and women's baths were added. Celebrities were quick to embrace it. The magazine Hayat was awash with tittle-tattle about visiting stars: Johnny Halliday swathed in towels like Lawrence of Arabia; the French chanteur Adamo being soaped down by a dansöz; Tony Curtis emerging in pristine white top and slacks. As with most hammams, the front door, down a narrow street off Istiklâl Caddesi, remains unprepossessing but inside the place is spruce and well-managed. The Galatasaray Hammam may lack the mysterious recesses of Istanbul's other grand hammams, but it is delightfully steamy and atmospheric all the same. Galatasaray Hammam, Turnacbas Sok 24, Galatasaray, Istanbul (www.galatasarayhamami.com; 00 90 212 249 9456)
Cagaloglu was the last great Ottoman hammam. The intoxicating experience of lying on hot marble in this temple to water and purification, gazing up at its dome through twin circles of ornate capitals, is the perfect climax to a grand hammam tour. Heroic efforts to increase the supply of water to the city were made in the 18th century, culminating in the astonishing Valide Bendi (Queen Mother's Dam), built in 1797 by the mother of Selim III in the Belgrade Forest, near the Black Sea. Tunnels and aqueducts linked the dam to Taksim - literally "distribution point", now the city's modern hub - but it was never enough to keep up with the population. District hammams were permitted. Private mansions acquired their own baths, and the palaces at Dolmabahçe and Yldz would be handsomely plumbed but huge public double baths for men and women had had their day. They were simply too extravagant.
Built in 1741, if Cagaloglu marks the swansong of the grand hammam, it also ushers in a new era. The building may now be cluttered with modern tourist tack, but when you are confronted by the bold fountain in the entrance hall and the dome above it, you sense the impact it must once have had in its heyday. But the most innovative thing about the baths is not what you see but what you don't see. For a hammam to work properly, flames and hot air must gust round the foundations and walls through an ingenious system of vents, completely sealed off to prevent fumes seeping into the rooms. The furnace, or külhan, is always at the back. The Çinili Hammam burns coal or wood. Galatasaray has converted to natural gas. In Cagaloglu, the "lord of the furnace", the külhanbey, is now not from Albania, as in the old days, but from Ayvalk, on the Aegean, source of Turkish olive oil. Cagaloglu does it all with crushed olive pips. Cagaloglu Hammam, Yerebatan Cad 34, Cagaloglu, Istanbul (www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr; 00 90 212 522 2424)
This is an edited extract from the current issue of Cornucopia magazine (www.cornucopia.net)