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  • Writer's pictureTerry Richardson

A Brief History of Çemberlitaş Hammam in Istanbul

What is Çemberlitaş Hammam?

Çemberlitaş Hammam is one of the greatest bath houses surviving from the 16th-century peak of the Ottoman Empire.

Çemberlitaş Hammam

Çemberlitaş Hammam History

Built at the behest of Nurbanu, wife of Sultan Selim II, in the late 16th century, this beautiful bath house complex is generally regarded as one of the finest in Istanbul. Famed for both her intellect and beauty, Nurbanu exercised considerable influence over her husband. On his death in 1574, she engineered the succession of her son Murad and at this point she became valide sultan (literally ‘mother sultan’), the highest position a woman could hold in the Ottoman Empire. Careful not to undermine the authority of her son, Nurbanu nonetheless wielded considerable power behind the scenes until her death in 1583.

The Çemberlitaş Hammam stands at the heart of the old city on Divan Yolu, the imperial road leading to the nerve centre of the Ottoman Empire, the Topkapi Palace. It conforms to the usual layout of Ottoman bath houses, with a large domed camekan (or entrance hall) where bathers change from their outdoor clothes into a peştemal (a sarong-like wrap) and wooden sandals. Beyond the entrance hall is the soğukluk (or cold room), topped by triple domes, which then opens out onto the main room of the complex, the hararet.

This square, spacious and marble-clad room is decorated with a circle of columns and capitals supporting an arcade on which the dome itself sits. Recesses complete with basins and taps for washing and sluicing line the walls, whilst the centre of the room, bathed in rays of light from the bottle-glass apertures puncturing the dome, is home to the göbek taşı (or navel stone), an octagonal raised platform of attractively striped marble, underneath which unseen furnaces heat the room. Bathers relax on this heated stone and sometimes submit to the vigorous Turkish bath house massage.

The Çemberlitaş Hammam was far from the only important building constructed at the behest of Nurbanu Valide Sultan. Most important of these was the Atik Valide Mosque complex on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, built for her by the doyen of Ottoman architects, Sinan. It’s the Çemberlitaş Hammam, however, that’s the most popular of the sites built for Nurbanu, and the baths have attracted Istanbulites from across the city for hundreds of years.

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