The Zeyrek Cinili Hamam Is Restored in Istanbul

This article is part of our Design special section about 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, $15-million-plus restoration. 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 neighborhood in Istanbul that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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

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

Restoring the bathhouse, which was built from 1530 to 1540, was Bike Gursel’s self-described obsession. Fourteen years ago, as a board member of the Marmara Group, a privately held real estate investment firm, Ms. Gursel decided a classical Turkish hamam was just the thing to diversify the company’s offerings.

“I was looking to buy a hamam for a long time, and when I couldn’t find one, I began collecting hamam 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 Ms. Gursel’s urging, the Marmara Group bought the Zeyrek Cinili Hamam even though it was a near ruin. “The architect said it would take three years to restore,” she recalled. “Not 13.”

The restoration specialists KA-BA Architecture in Ankara, Turkey, supervised the project and its team of archaeologists, engineers, scholars and artisans. The long and complicated process began with a survey of the bathhouse, which had been badly damaged over the centuries by earthquakes, fires and neglect.

The 30,000-square-foot building was completely unstable.

“We had to excavate 36 feet down to find solid ground,” said Cengiz Kabaoglu, KA-BA Architecture’s founder. A subterranean structure of steel and concrete was built to reinforce the compound. This allowed the builders to repair the roof and walls, install gas furnaces to replace the former wood-burning ones, replace the wood beams and tie the domes with ribbons of steel.

Antiques surfaced during the excavations: ancient coins, fifth-century Roman glass bottles, Byzantine oil lamps, terra-cotta vessels and tile fragments. They are on view in a new museum next to the bathhouse.

What didn’t turn up were the resplendent 16th-century Iznik tiles that once covered the walls. Ms. Gursel learned that, in the 1870s, an Ottoman antiques dealer took possession of the tiles and spirited them off to Paris. Some ended up in the Louvre. Others in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Others in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. All were reassembled virtually in a display at the hamam’s museum.

Now the hamam walls are covered in pale gray Marmara marble. The rooms are minimal, elegant and serene. On the rebuilt exterior, the roofs have been resurfaced in lead, with handblown glass “elephant-eye” hats protecting the skylights. A roof terrace offers views of the magnificent domes.

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

Mrs. Gureli Yazgan described the restoration project as thrilling, but not easy. “We value cultural preservation, but this project was like opening a Pandora’s box,” she said. “Every discovery led to a delay. At one point the board said, ‘Stop digging.’ But we couldn’t. It was the story that kept us going.”

The hamam’s original patron was Hayreddin Barbarossa, the grand admiral of the Ottoman Empire who was also known by the Italian translation of his name: Redbeard. 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 Spain’s conquest of Grenada. As privateers, they ferried Muslim immigrants forced to leave Spain to North Africa, captured Rhodes and Tunis, attacked the Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese fleets, and briefly conquered Algiers in 1516.

Barbarossa’s successful naval campaigns attracted the attention of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, who appointed him his grand admiral in 1534.

Before Barbarossa died in 1546, he commissioned the bathhouse from Mimar Sinan, a former slave who became the chief 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 the functions of physical and spiritual purification and cleansing, hamams also provided their frequenters with the opportunity to socialize, keep up with daily events, gossip and celebrate many milestones of life together,” writes Leyla Kayhan Elbirlik, a visiting scholar at Harvard University, in a new book on the bathhouse restoration, “Barbarossa’s Cinili Hamam: A Masterpiece by Sinan.” Those milestones included circumcision baths for boys, premarriage 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 an affluent Ottoman neighborhood, home to palace officials and military commanders. Barbarossa presumably picked the spot because it overlooked the Bosporus, allowing him to view the sultan’s shipyards he supervised on the opposite shore.

Now, 500 years later, the Zeyrek Cinili Hamam may again be the anchor of a fashionable area. Across the street, a large new hotel is under construction.

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