Developers are spending millions of dollars buying and restoring İstanbul's finest hamams, 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 hamams. People have realized they are a strong business and there is a lot of interest in buying or managing them," said Aydin Bulut, manager of the Suleymaniye Hamam. His bath was built in 1557 by Mimar Sinan, the prolific architect behind İstanbul's most celebrated structures.
Price tags are high. İstanbul's Cağaloğlu Hamam -- built in 1741 and boasting Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II and Florence Nightingale among visitors -- is on sale for $16 million according to estate agents Remax Turkey. The smaller Ayakapı Hamam, also built by Sinan but not currently used as a bath, is for sale for $3 million, they said.
The success of the handful of tourist-focused historic baths including the Cağaloğlu, where a scrub and massage can cost up to $55, has persuaded developers of the business potential of İstanbul's dozens of other hamams.
Tourists are keen to experience them, their imaginations fueled 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 program to boost infrastructure and market new destinations and vacation themes, including health and wellness.
Ottoman revival: Foreigners' eagerness to visit centuries-old hamams 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 hamams and talking about their experiences I envy them. I think I ought to look into it again," said the 75-year-old, who went to hamams 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 it emphasized modernity and break with tradition.
"Since the 1980s everything Ottoman has been in vogue," said Nina Ergin, an Ottoman expert at İstanbul's Koç University. "At first the revival was orientated to tourists, but then people started to realize the value of Ottoman artifacts and traditions and wanted to find out more about their own past."
For example, scores of tourists and Turks alike now puff on waterpipes, or nargiles, which were once deemed obsolete due to the development of the cigarette.
Interest in hamams also dovetails with a rising "spa and wellness" trend in Turkey, Ergin added. "A lot of people are realizing that with hamams they have these really old, beautiful wellness centers 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 hamam industry, but Zeki Karagülle, the director of Turkey's Spa Association, said visitor numbers were increasing.
Stone domes: Hamams are recognizable 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 checkered 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 center 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 hamams could be fashionable again within a very short period if they are nicely run," said 33-year-old entrepreneur Ergin İren. "Tourists would come first, but then Turks would come, too." He had never been to a traditional hamam until a friend showed him a disused bath for sale in İstanbul's old city. "He thought of turning it into a disco. I felt so sad about this it started me thinking about old hamams. I read up on the history, how they worked, and then dreamed of buying one." In 2005 İren got his chance, buying a bath house built in the 1580s by Sinan. Scaffolding now surrounds the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam in Tophane by the Bosporus. Iren hopes it will open in 2010 as an exclusive, likely reservation-only hamam.
Social importance: The hamam tradition developed in Muslim countries where Islam emphasized cleanliness and washing, but independently they fulfilled an important social function, with men and women spending hours inside gossiping and relaxing.
Sometimes, as in the case of the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam, they were part of a mosque complex, hence their magnificent architecture: They were intended to provide an income source to the religious institutions through 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 hamam at least once every two weeks it was grounds for divorce," said Ergin. "They were a very important space like a beauty salon or a spa today." Brides would meet female friends in hamams ahead of their weddings, and the sultan's concubines and favorites would take to the Hamam to make themselves most fragrant and alluring. For men it was a place to socialize and repose -- 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 hamam while drunk.Turkey's restored hamams are set to be much more refined. Reuters