Crossroads Tour – A Hamami, Suleyman Camii, and a Lost Taxi

  • Tarihi Gedikpasa Hamami was built in 1475 by Hayrettin for Gedik Ahmet Pasa, considered one of the most important architects of the Ottoman period, and regarded by many historians to be the teacher of Mimar Sinan. 
  • Tarihi Gedikpasa has the largest dome of any hamami (Turkish bath) in Istanbul, and is one of the most important Ottoman historical buildings in this city. It serves both men and women in segregated parts of the bath.
The lobby and check-in desk at the Tarihi Gedikpasa Hamami

I check in at the front desk and am led to a room with a bed and a chest. I disrobe, wrap myself in the thin striped cotton towel that I was handed at check in, slip on flip flops, and lock the door behind me. I am led into the bath.

The heat nearly takes my breath away. A series of domes peppered with round glass windows at the top, allow beams of sunlight to illuminate the marble lined room. My attendant leads me to one of three marble fountains along the wall, where she douses me with water from a bowl which she then hands to me so l can continue to wash. She then directs me to lay down on the large marble platform under the center dome. It feels like it is heated.

In an American spa, you are met with white coated attendants who drape you discreetly in a comfortable but clinical setting. My Turkish attendant is a middle-aged woman in a black bikini who soon separates me from my cotton towel. She begins…

She scrubs me head to toe with a heavy luffa mitt. She motions for me to sit up for more scrubbing. I then lay back down as she lays the striped cotton sheet, now filled with suds, across my back. It feels like being smothered in a blanket of heavy cream. More washing. More turning. Rinsing. Back again for massage and hair. Rinse again. Sit and steam ..

I finish in a separate room where there’s a pool of cool water that did not smell of salt but which made me feel more buoyant than I know I am. The pool is tiled blue, and is under another dome with shafts of light coming through the small squarish windows and piercing the water.  I have the sensation of floating in a combination of shafts of light and cool water.

This is not the ceiling I was under, but gives you an idea of the sensation I experienced as shafts of light pierced both the air above me, and the water below.

There are traces of frescoes throughout this hamami, but no paint could survive so many centuries of steam. I wondered what deals had been struck, what intrigues planned, what gossip shared or weddings arranged over the centuries here.  I walk out into a common area, where I am dried off with a heavy Turkish towel and shown back to my changing room. If I lived here, I’d want to do this once a week …

  • Travel tip: Book your visit to a hamami on a Monday when most of the historic sites are closed. A standard bath is TL35, splurge for the full treatment for TL50 which includes a massage. Remember to bring a bottle of water; this experience, like any spa treatment, will dehydrate you.

Completely refreshed, I walk to the Grand Bazaar for lunch. My waiter is half Turkish, half German, raised in Boston. My meal is a chicken dish cooked in filo, served in tomato sauce, accompanied by yogurt and garnished with french fries — a culinary detail which will continue to baffle me for the rest of my stay here.

It’s time to find the University of Istanbul, and behind it, Suleyman Camii. I discover a street of craftsmen that I nicknamed “Metalsmith Alley”

  • Travel tip: Mimar Sinan Cadessi is the street that runs along the backside of the University campus and is the home to several craftsmen’s shops. I stop to watch Ercan Tekin as he engraves a Turkish coffee pot on the sidewalk outside of his shop. (I came home with one of his coffee sets). There are a number of working metal shops here, as well other artisan merchants and at least one antique store.

The Suleymaniye Camii is closed for prayer, so I look for Barbarossa’s statue and tomb. There are several major restoration projects occurring right now and much of the Suleymaniye complex is inaccessible. I stop to buy a pair of traditional Turkish socks and a prayer cap from a vendor. After giving him all the cash I had, he smiles and slips a bottle of water into my bag to sustain me on this very hot day.

Sultan Suleyman Camii
  • Sultan Suleyman Camii was built by Mimar Sinan and is the largest square based semi-domed mosque he ever designed. It was finished in 1557. The dome is supported by four ‘elephant feet’ pillars, and Mimar embedded juniper beams among the stones in the foundation to absorb shocks from earthquakes. Soot from the oil lamps was directed by a venting system to a chamber where it was collected for use in calligraphy ink.

The ceiling is a riot of shapes but in more subdued colors than other mosques, which made it the most restful mosque I visited on this trip. I wanted to stay there all afternoon.

The sound of multiple pairs of shoes dropping to the marble step in unison as men and women retrieved them after prayers, is a sound that reverberated in my ears for weeks. The other sound that stayed with me for months after I returned, was that of the calls for prayer — sometimes coming at you from the tops of minarets from three different directions. I was not able to record what I heard, but found this one on YouTube.

  • Sultan Suleyman reigned from 1520-1566 and was the longest ruling sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He reformed law in keeping with Islamic principals and commissioned the building of mosques, schools, hans (hotels), a number of public works, and a large library. Sciences, art and literature flourished during his reign due in part to his patronage. He was called “The Magnificent” in recognition of these works. His reign marked the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire.

Mosques have a lot more windows than European churches of the same period. Many of the windows are either double pane glass with 12-18″ of air between the two panes, or a pane of glass behind grillwork. I think I saw more stained glass in Istanbul than I saw in all of Venice and Florence combined.

A gallery in the Suleymaniye Camii
  • Mimar Sinan was born into a Christian family sometime between 1494-99. He was recruited into the Janissaries when he was 14-18 years old and went on to become a military engineer. As Chief Architect for Sultan Suleyman, Sinan was responsible for the design, construction and restoration of 477 buildings and public works, about 20 of them of which still stand in Istanbul. The Suleymaniye Camii is regarded as one of his greatest achievements.

On my way home I shop a street of shops selling buttons, fabric, and kitchen wares. I finally find the tiny spoons which complete my glass tea sets. I visit Sinan’s tomb, a modest structure tucked away under a wisteria arbor. I also find an English book store and allow myself to splurge, having decided to trade my carpet for an Islamic library.

With daylight still left, I head to the Galata Bridge. The top deck is studded with an array of food vendors hawking roasted corn, roasted chestnuts, and savory breads. The rail is lined with fishermen, pulling small silver fish out of the sea on their multi-hook lines. I watch the boats traffic push the surf over the retaining wall.  I return home via the bottom deck of the bridge which is lined with restaurants, and start mulling over how to stay here for just one more day.

Baha asks what my plan is for tomorrow. “The Ayasofya and the museum,” I say. “You must go to Princes Islands. Very Important.” One island has a castle, another has a famous church, another has very nice houses. He makes notations on my map.

His phone rings, it’s his plan for the evening, which takes us both to the Lasos Fish Restaurant. At the end of the evening Baha walks me to the cab stop, gives instructions to the driver, and sends me on my way. And a new adventure begins…

The cabbie get off the freeway, and stops every few blocks to ask for directions to the hotel. Between stops and turns he mutters “Hotel Han” and “Allah Allah” and throws his hands up in the air. A dry cleaner is shutting down for the night, the cabbie stops to ask him directions. Some random guy is standing on a street corner and cabbie stops for directions but I don’t think Random Guy speaks Turkish. We get to the Sultanahmet and I start pointing at signs for Yerebatan.  There’s more muttering and supplications to sky. I point once more to the sign for Ayasofya which he takes literally, and starts driving across the pedestrian plaza towards the mosque…

Finally, after eight stops for directions and a countless litanies of “Hotel Han Hotel Han Allah Allah,” we arrive. We both laugh, though who was the greater relieved between the two of us, would be a pretty hard call…

  • This is an excerpt from my original travel journal. The full text, which includes historical notes and traveler tips, is now available for your literary pleasure at AugustPhoenixHats.com.

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