In the year 1556, the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent ordered a royal bath to be constructed over the ruins of an earlier public bath destroyed in 532 AD.
The new bath came to be called the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam because of its close proximity to the famous Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) – the 6th century Byzantine cathedral/mosque that is now a world-renowned museum. We were invited to experience this celebrated bath, and this is the story.
Years of service
The Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam pleasured Sultans and their guests from 1556 until 1910 when the baths were abruptly closed.
The building was repurposed on several occasions between 1910 and 2011 when it was finally restored to its original glory and prominence as an opulent Turkish bath.
One of its more interesting functions after 1910 was as a place of confinement for inmates during times of “overflow” at the nearby Sultanahmet Prison.
The bath as hamam
The Turkish hamams are all natural baths that generally provide mind and body therapies similar to those offered in tony spas around the world. Ottoman style all natural baths, like the Ayasofya Hamami, are as much in vogue today as they were in antiquity.
Entering the hamam
The front entrance to the bath opens into a reception area. This is where the vitamin bar, rest area, and boutique shop are located.
Select from a wide array of services
After signing in, each customer is asked to select a bath program. There are many hamam packages to choose from and we opted for the Pir-i Pak or “Full Cleansing Program.” We chose the Pir-i Pak because it offered the standard services of a traditional Turkish bath. Here is what happens after you make your selection.
Men and women are separated and guided to their own private dressing rooms that are small, but tastefully furnished in exotic woods and well secured. The customers are left to disrobe and don the traditional silk and cotton bath wrap, called a “pestamal.” The pestamal is usually worn during the entire bath process; however, the choice is left to personal preference.
Dressed in our pestamals, we exited our dressing rooms and walked to the first of three rooms where the treatments are performed. This first chamber is of lustrous white marble and tall ceilings, and has the appearance of an ancient Roman steam room. Guests sit on Marmara marble slabs next to alabaster sinks with hot and cold gold faucets. The purpose of the room is to acclimate the body to the heat and to begin the detoxification process. The temperature is about 100F degrees.
An attendant provides each guest with a replica Ottoman period gold plated bath bowl with which to help with the preparation of the body with alternative drenches of hot and cold water. After an ample amount of self-soaking, muscles start to relax and pores are open and receptive to the next passage – each guest is led into a very large white room.
This next room is still warmer (116F) and is also elegantly appointed in marble and fine woods, and contains individual white marble bath stations with sinks. In the middle of the room stands an immense multi-sided heated belly marble platform about 30 inches high, and perhaps 40 feet in circumference.
Each guest is seated at a bath station and his or her same-sex attendant commences a vigorous full body scrub with an exfoliating mitt.
When the invigorating body scrub is complete, guests are rinsed and requested to recline on their back on the marble dais in the center of the room. Each customer is positioned head to toe in circular fashion around the edge of the stone.
The magic foam
With an easy flick of what appears to be a towel laden with warm liquid, the attendants engulf the guest’s body from neck to toe in a gentle cocoon of luxurious foam. They then commence a full body massage under the cover of the soothing bubbles. The full body massage includes everything except private parts.
During the rigorous deep massage, the men’s attendants cantillated ancient Turkish chants that resonated in the tall 80-foot ceilings and added an entrancingly mystical component to the already lavish experience of the bath.
Several dousings of warm water followed the massage, and when all the foam was entirely extinguished, each guest was invited into a warm fluffy towel wrap, and led to the third (cooling) room. It is at this point that we were truly engulfed in a sublime feeling of cleanliness and complete rejuvenation.
The final room was also the reception area where the journey originally started. There we laid motionless on chaise lounges as we savored the sensation of uber-relaxation, and contemplated the history and cultural significance of what we had just experienced.
It was here that we were offered soothing and delicious teas, and enjoyed a chat among the other participants of this most enjoyable event.
At our will, we returned to our private lockers, dressed and prepared to rejoin our partners and re-enter the busy world outside the magnificent Sultan’s Bath of Istanbul.
One final thought
There is one downside to this experience. It is hard to imagine that another Turkish bath can compare to the spotlessly clean architectural marvel of the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan’s Bath, so we may be spoiled for life.
Consider a holiday in Turkey
Turkey is a country whose history is at the center of human civilization. A country where tourists are welcome and the locals are eager to show visitors their beautiful nation and treasured antiquities. Turkey is also a land of extraordinary diversity and wonder – and a fantastic place to vacation.
If you go
Should you find yourself in Istanbul, and you want to enjoy a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam is one to savor and put in your diary or memoirs. For more information, check out the Bath’s website *here*.
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© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff
Photos © Wayne and Judy Bayliff – photos of models in the bath provided by Ayasofya Hamam
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