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  • Writer's pictureJoel Butler, MA

A Brief History of Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammam in Istanbul

What is Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammam?

Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammam is a 16th-century hammam built as part of Grand Admiral Kılıç Ali Paşa’s mosque complex and one of the final projects of renowned architect Sinan.

Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammam

Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammam History

Why would a mosque complex be built on an island away from the shore? The answer lies in the identity of its patron, Kılıç (the Sword) Ali Paşa – sometimes known as Uluç (the Renegade) Ali – the Ottoman Grand Admiral of the mid-16th century. Ali was a highly successful corsair captain, operating out of North African ports such as Algiers, before being called to the Grand Admiralty in Istanbul in 1572 and tasked with rebuilding the Ottoman fleet in the aftermath of its naval defeat at Lepanto. His greatest military achievement as Grand Admiral was the recapture of Tunis in September 1574.

Born ‘Giovan Dionigi Galeni’ in 1519, he grew up a Catholic in rural Calabria. However, at the age of 17, he was captured by corsair captain Ali Ahmed, of the fleet of Barbarossa Hayreddin Paşa, and chained to the oars to row, eat and sleep in his own filth as a galley slave. By 1541, he had converted to Islam and was a privateer in the fleet of Turgut Reis, and his natural ability as a mariner saw him awarded Ottoman landed titles from 1550 onwards. In the following decade, he ascended to the position of Beylerbeyi of Algiers, a prestigious vice-regency on the North African coast.

Despite his renown as a captain and admiral, Kılıç Ali Paşa was not immune from the cut-and-thrust of 16th-century Ottoman political factionalism. He was also renowned for his temper – it was reported that he and English Ambassador William Harborne came to blows during a dispute over illegal plundering of English ships by Ali’s pirates in 1586. We can detect Ali’s thirst for plunder and glory from the way in 1570 he abandoned a trip to Istanbul to request more ships and men from the sultan (and pay for troops stationed in Algiers) after encountering five Maltese galleys and deciding to capture them instead. Ali returned to Algiers to celebrate, but faced a mutiny by soldiers demanding their overdue pay – so sailed away to join the Ottoman fleet, leaving the mutineers to extract their pay from the residents of Algiers. It was with this fleet that he joined the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 – returning to Istanbul a hero.

Nevertheless, Ali was somewhat of an outsider in Istanbul politics, largely still the preserve of statesmen raised through the Ottoman palace levy of the brightest and best Christian boys from the Balkans, brought forcibly as children to Istanbul to be converted to Islam and educated to rule. It’s rumoured that one such childhood recruit, Grand Vizier Rüstem Paşa, disliked Ali so much that he deliberately granted him an area in the sea for Kılıç Ali’s complex. According to the story, Ali went ahead and built an artificial island and causeway, though it’s more likely that he simply wanted his mosque complex to overlook the Bosphorus.

Nevertheless, the mosque and hammam, both built in the 1580s, are now inland due to subsequent land reclamation projects. Their construction was one of the last projects overseen by renowned architect Sinan. The hammam features a hexagonal design, with the hot room in the middle, four corner bathing spaces, and two cool rooms behind glass doors on either flank of the hot room. There’s also a legend that Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, worked as a slave on the construction, which – if true – eerily mirrors the equally difficult origins of Kılıç Ali Paşa himself.

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