One of the many bathhouses that served the residents of Istanbul not only as a place for ritual ablution before prayer, but also as a place for socializing was the Çemberlitaş Hamamı. It was built by the imperial guild of architects (hassa mimarları) under the supervision of Mimar Sinan and completed in 1584, according to the inscription composed by Mustafa Sâ’î-i Dâ’î. As a typical double bath, it has a section each for men and women, organized parallel to each other in a symmetrical manner and contained in an almost square building block. Its four large and many smaller domes loom over the street corner of the Divanyolu, where it is located opposite the Column of Constantine, known as Çemberlitaş. On the other side of the column, the minaret and the dome of the Atik Ali Paşa Mosque (completed in 1496/7) dominate the skyline of the plaza. Together with the congregation of this mosque, the guests of the Vezir Han (constructed in the 1670s), the guests of the Elçi Han (constructed in 1510/11, no longer extant), and the many merchants and workers of the near-by Kapalı Çarşı provided a steady clientele to the hamam.
Like so many hamams in Istanbul, the Çemberlitaş Hamamı was established as part of a charitable endowment (waqf). It generated income for the upkeep of the Atik Valide Mosque Complex in Üsküdar, built between 1571 and 1583 under the supervision of Mimar Sinan. The founder of the complex was Nurbanu Sultan (d. 1583), wife to Selim II (r. 1566-74) and mother to Murad III (r. 1574-95). A colorful personality of Greek or Venetian origin, Nurbanu participated in the tradition of Ottoman royal women commissioning the construction of mosques, caravanserais, hospitals, and other buildings serving the public. Her complex in Üsküdar was the largest a royal woman had built in the Ottoman capital until then and included, apart from the mosque itself, a primary school (mekteb), a college (medrese), a school for Qur’an recitation (darülkurra), a school for studying hadith (darülhadis), a convent for Sufis of the Halveti order (tekke), a hospital (darüşşifa), inn for travelers (han), and a soup kitchen (imaret). In order to earn the financial resources needed to staff and maintain the mosque complex, Nurbanu endowed sizeable agricultural lands in Eastern Anatolia and Rumelia, head tax (cizye) on non-Muslim residents of Üsküdar, income from several different businesses, as well as rental income from residences, workshops and four baths especially constructed in Istanbul: the Atik Valide Hamamı next to the complex, the Büyük Hamam in central Üsküdar, the Havuzlu Hamam on the Golden Horn, and the Çemberlitaş Hamamı. Accounting registers (muhasebe defterleri) show that the latter secured the highest rent income from among these four hamams.
Because the street level has risen over time, the entrance to the Çemberlitaş Hamamı can now be reached down a flight of stairs, and both men and women enter through the door with the building inscription. Originally, this door provided access only to the male bathers and was fronted by a portico, much like that of Mimar Sinan’s Haseki Hamam (constructed in 1556/57)—the Köprülü waterway map dating to the seventeenth century shows such a portico, which was demolished probably in the nineteenth century. Female bathers would have entered the building from another entrance on the side, in order to prevent them from intermingling with men and to protect their modesty.
Once inside, however, male and female bathers alike enjoyed equal, if strictly separated facilities. They first entered the dressing room (soğukluk), built over a square measuring 13 by 13 meters and topped by a dome with equal diameter. Light enters through the lantern-covered oculus in the dome’s center. In the middle of the room a fountain (fıskiye) provided a pleasant ambience with its gentle burbling of water and cooling effect. The dressing room’s walls are now lined with wooden cabins, but we do not know with certainty whether similar cabins also existed before the twentieth century. This room’s traditional function was not only that of a place for bathers to undress and store their belongings, but also that of a lounge, where they could entertain and chat after the actual bath and consume coffee, sherbet and various delicacies. Especially women visiting in groups would bring a picnic basket filled with foods such as stuffed grape leaves (dolma) and savory pastry (börek). After undressing and wrapping themselves into a flat-woven towel (peştamal), bathers proceeded through a door into the warm room (ılıklık). This room consists of three small, domed bays lined up in a perpendicular fashion, and it has several basins (kurna) for washing, as well as a door leading to the latrines, which were attached to both sides of the square building block. Another door leads into the heart of the bathhouse, the hot room (sıcaklık).
The hot room consists of one primary space covering a twelve-sided area 12.5 meters in diameter, and four secondary spaces. So as to solve the architectural problem of transitioning from a square ground plan to a domed superstructure while creating a unified, centralized space, Mimar Sinan inscribed four niches into the four corner spaces. These dome-capped niches (halvet) are separated by dividing walls of slightly more than human height and with their three basins each can accommodate bathers who wish for greater privacy. Between the four halvet entrances, two shallow niches on each side form the backdrop to the twelve columns supporting the central dome. These twelve columns all have lozenge capitals; they are placed in equidistance to and connected with the exterior walls, so that they enhance the room’s unified appearance.
In the center of the sıcaklık, an elevated marble slab (göbektaşı) gives bathers a place to lie down and wait for the skin’s pores to open in the humid air. After about half an hour, bathers are ready for a scrub (kese), for which they can hire an attendant (tellak). When the Austrian art historian Heinrich Glück visited the Çemberlitaş Hamamı in 1916 or 1917, the göbektaşı still had a beautiful, geometric inlay in black on white marble. The small openings pierced into the dome above, covered with glass cups of about 20 centimeters in diameter (filgözü), admit daylight into the space.
The original marble basins (kurna) have been replaced in the course of the many repairs and restorations over the centuries. Yet, the carved ornamental bands of palmettes and finials on some of the dividing walls still give a sense of the original decoration. Male bathers can also enjoy an ornament that does not exist in the women’s hot room: a long inscription of twenty verses, inscribed in cartouches in stark black on the light-grey marble across the dividing walls. The remaining rooms have almost no decoration, and this spare decoration allows the architectural volume to convey a sense of solidity and clarity to the visitors moving through the space. The hamam gives an impression of fine understatement, as is so often affected by Mimar Sinan’s most successful monuments.
The parts of a bathhouse that few visitors ever see, but without which it cannot function, are at the building’s rear and hidden inside the walls: water reservoir, furnace, and heating flues. Located behind the hot rooms and tended by a furnace-stoker (külhancı), the furnace (külhan) heats the air that circulates through the hypocaust system (cehennemlik) in order to warm the interior. The furnace opens up into a hollow space underneath the bath’s floor which is suspended on pillars. Hot air, smoke and gases circulate through the cehennemlik, rise through the flues embedded in the walls and escape through chimneys. The furnace also heats the water in the metal boiler mounted above it. The metal boiler is fed from a water reservoir at roof level and, in turn, feeds hot water to the taps inside the hamam, whereas the cold water flows directly from the reservoir.
From an inspection register preserved in the Prime Ministry’s Archives and dated to 1752, the İstanbul Hamamları Defteri (Kamil Kepeci Müteferrik Defterleri, no. 7437), we know that in that year 58 male bath attendants (tellaks) and bath servants (natırs) worked in the Çemberlitaş Hamamı. This number does not include the above-mentioned furnace-stoker, laundry-men (çâmesuy), coffee cooks (kahveci), or female employees (tellake), but the recorded number indicates that this bathhouse was the second-largest of the city at that time. Therefore, it was a very crowded place, with a large number of people coming and going, exchanging news and gossiping. This ease and density of social interaction was also what had led to Patrona Halil -a bath attendant in the Bayezid Hamamı, located in walking distance of the Çemberlitaş Hamamı- being able to instigate a revolt that ended with the deposition of Ahmed III in 1730. It should not come as a surprise, then, that the city’s administration subsequently felt the need to register and police male bathhouse employees, resulting in the existence of archival documents that can help in reconstructing the extensive social networks stretching across Istanbul’s many hamams.
Ergin, Nina, “Continuity and Change in Turkish Bathing Culture in Istanbul: The Life Story of the Çemberlitaş Hamam,” Turkish Studies, 2005, vol. 6, pp. 93-112.
--- (ed.), Bathing Culture of Anatolian Civilizations: Architecture, History and Imagination, Louvain : Peeters, 2011.
---, “The Albanian Tellâk Connection: Labor Migration to the Hamams of Eighteenth-Century Istanbul, Based on the 1752 İstanbul Hamâmları Defteri,” Turcica, 2012, vol. 43, pp. 229-254.