Hamam Zeyrek Cinili is restored in Istanbul

This article is part of our special Design section on water as a source of creativity.

On May 3, Zeyrek Cinili Hamam, a 500-year-old public bathhouse, reopened in Istanbul after a 13-year restoration costing more than $15 million. Named for its original cobalt and turquoise cladding (cinili is the Turkish word for “tiled”), the hamam is the jewel of the Zeyrek district, a historic district of Istanbul now a UNESCO world heritage site.

Visitors can enjoy a traditional Turkish bath under soaring domes pierced by star-shaped skylights that send twinkling rays into the rooms. A typical one-hour bath costs 95 euros (about $101) and includes an exfoliating scrub and massage accompanied by the soothing sound of water splashing in the marble tubs.

Just as in Ottoman times, anyone who can afford the entrance fee is welcome, regardless of faith, class or profession.

The restoration of the bathhouse, built between 1530 and 1540, was Bike Gursel's obsession. Fourteen years ago, as a board member of the Marmara Group, a private real estate investment firm, Ms. Gursel decided that a classic Turkish hamam was just the thing to diversify the company's offerings.

“I had been trying to buy a hamam for a long time, and when I couldn't find one, I started collecting hammam artifacts, such as embroidered towels and mother-of-pearl inlaid clogs made for the bath,” she recalled. “I was already thinking about a museum.”

In 2010, at Mrs. Gursel's urging, the Marmara Group purchased Hamam Zeyrek Cinili even though it was in near disrepair. “The architect said it would take three years to restore,” she recalled. “Not 13.”

Restoration specialists KA-BA Architecture in Ankara, Turkey, oversaw the project and its team of archaeologists, engineers, scholars and craftsmen. The long and complicated work began with the survey of the baths, seriously damaged over the centuries by earthquakes, fires and neglect.

The 30,000 square foot building was completely unstable.

“We had to dig 36 feet deep to find solid ground,” said Cengiz Kabaoglu, founder of KA-BA Architecture. To reinforce the complex, an underground steel and concrete structure was built. This allowed the builders to repair the roof and walls, install gas ovens to replace the wood-fired ones, replace the wooden beams and tie the domes with steel strips.

Antiques emerged during the excavations: ancient coins, Roman glass bottles from the 5th century, Byzantine lamps, terracotta vases and tile fragments. They are displayed in a new museum next to the bathhouse.

What didn't stand out were the gleaming 16th-century Iznik tiles that once covered the walls. Mrs. Gursel learned that, in 1870, an Ottoman antiquarian took possession of the tiles and took them to Paris. Some ended up in the Louvre. Others at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Others at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. All were virtually reassembled in an exhibition at the hammam museum.

Now the walls of the hammam are covered with light gray Marmara marble. The rooms are minimal, elegant and serene. On the rebuilt exterior, the roofs have been clad in lead, with hand-blown glass “elephant's eye” caps protecting the skylights. A roof terrace offers views of the magnificent domes.

When Ms. Gursel retired in 2021, she passed her seat on the Marmara Group board of directors and restoration responsibilities to her daughter, Koza Gureli Yazgan, a business graduate.

Ms. Gureli Yazgan described the restoration project as exciting, but not easy. “We value cultural preservation, but this project was like opening a Pandora's box,” she said. “Each discovery led to a delay. At one point the council said, “Stop digging.” But we couldn't. It was history that kept us going.”

The original patron of the hamam was Hayreddin Barbarossa, the great admiral of the Ottoman Empire, also known by the Italian translation of his name: Barbarossa. Born on the island of Lesbos in the late 1400s, Barbarossa was part of a family of pirates who roamed the Mediterranean at the time of the Spanish conquest of Grenada. As privateers, they ferried Muslim immigrants forced out of Spain to North Africa, captured Rhodes and Tunis, attacked Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese fleets, and briefly captured Algiers in 1516.

The success of Barbarossa's naval campaigns attracted the attention of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who appointed him his grand admiral in 1534.

Before he died in 1546, Barbarossa commissioned the bathhouse from Mimar Sinan, a former slave who became the principal imperial architect of the Ottoman Empire at the height of its political and cultural power in 1538.

The bathhouse is a rare “double hamam” with separate areas for men and women.

“In addition to their functions of physical and spiritual cleansing and cleansing, hamams also provided their patrons with the opportunity to socialize, keep up to date with daily events, gossip, and celebrate many life milestones together,” writes Leyla Kayhan Elbirlik, a scholar in visit at Harvard University, in a new book on the restoration of the bathhouses, “Barbarossa's Cinili Hamam: A Masterpiece by Sinan.” These milestones included circumcision baths for boys, premarital baths for men and women, and postnatal baths for mothers and their newborns.

The bathhouse was also notable for its address: the “Fifth Avenue” of a wealthy Ottoman neighborhood, home to palace officials and military commanders. Barbarossa supposedly chose the spot because it overlooked the Bosphorus, allowing him to see the sultan's shipyards which he oversaw on the opposite bank.

Now, 500 years later, the Zeyrek Cinili Hamam could once again be the landmark of a trendy area. Across the street, a large new hotel is under construction.

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