With origins in the Arab world, the hammam, or Turkish bath, has its roots deeply embedded in the ancient practices of Roman and Byzantine bathhouses. These magnificent bathing facilities gained widespread popularity in the late 1400s, often situated in close proximity to mosques and medinas. They provided a refreshing respite from the rigours of daily existence, guiding patrons through a ritualistic experience that involves transitioning between warm and cool zones. The primary aim is to induce perspiration, exfoliate the skin, and purify before rejuvenating under a cold-water shower and indulging in various soothing therapies. Public baths were a feature of life in Turkey in ancient Greek and Roman times, and the Seljuk Turks continued to build hammams prolifically. The majority of historic hammams today survive from the Ottoman period, constructed between the 14th and 20th centuries.
Zeyrek Çinili Hamam, located in the Zeyrek district of Istanbul, was commissioned by Hayreddin Barbarossa, the Grand Admiral of the Ottoman Navy, and built between 1530 and 1540 by the famed architect Mimar Sinan. An ambitious restoration project has uncovered the hammam’s layers of history, restored the building’s original features, and returned it to its intended purpose as a public bath. To further enrich the hammam experience, Zeyrek Çinili Hamam includes a new museum displaying the historic artefacts found during the restoration, and the objects associated with traditions of the Ottoman bathing ritual. Visitors can also explore the newly discovered Byzantine cisterns, which will host a rotating programme of contemporary art.
Koza Güreli Yazgan, Zeyrek Çinili Hamam’s Founding Director, explains to Something Curated: “Back in the days, hammams served not only as a place of purification but also as a place for social gatherings. Bathhouses were where the community got together for many different occasions. There were thematic rituals such as bridal hammams where the bride and the women of the family gathered, feasted, and sang songs within the hammam. It was a place of socialising, especially for women. Today, most of these traditions no longer apply and hammams that serve mostly as touristic places. Our aim with Zeyrek Çinili Hamam, however, is to reignite this idea of the hammam being a place of gathering, as it once was. This is also one of the reasons why the hammam is launched with a contemporary art exhibition – to bring people together, this time around arts and culture.”
Before resuming its function as public baths, Zeyrek Çinili Hamam presents the major exhibition Healing Ruins, which explores the possibilities for transformation at both an individual and societal level. Curated by Anlam de Coster, Healing Ruins draws inspiration from the layers of the past uncovered by Zeyrek Çinili Hamam’s 13-year-long restoration, involving meticulous archaeological excavations. The programme takes place throughout the historic site, showcasing the works of 22 artists from Turkey and abroad, including new site-specific commissions on view from 30 September until 5 November 2023. Among the artists presenting work are Francesco Albano, Adrian Geller, Alice Guittard, Başak Günak, Maryam Hoseini, Ahmet Doğu İpek, Lara Ögel, Zoë Paul, Daniel Silver, Panos Tsagaris, Ezgi Türksoy, and Elif Uras.
Curator Anlam de Coster tells SC: “After conducting extensive research on the history of Zeyrek Çinili Hamam and its restoration, as well as exploring the cultural history of Ottoman hammams and the metaphorical realm of public baths, the process of selecting the 22 artists featured in the exhibition became intuitive. Most of them are names I have been following closely, as I hold a personal fascination for artists whose practices revolve around archaeology, cultural history, mythology, and memory – the foundations of Healing Ruins. I have invited 12 of these artists to create site-specific works for this exhibition, which marks both the first and the last of its kind to be hosted within the historical baths. I believe that collectively, the works in this exhibition will enable visitors to forge a deeper, more visceral, and emotional connection with the painstaking restoration of this incredible landmark and its multi-layered history.”
Feature image: Francesco Albano, Whirlpool, 2014. Exhibited as part of Healing Ruins at Zeyrek Çinili Hamam. Photo: Hadiye Cangökçe