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Our First Hamam: The Kılıç Ali Paşa

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It’s hard to imagine that we could have found a better place for our first Turkish bath than the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. This historic hamam in Tophane is one of Istanbul’s most beautiful, reopened in 2012 after years of restoration. We were invited to visit on a Sunday afternoon.

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Contemporary Turkish hamams find themselves in a difficult position. For centuries, these public bath houses were an integral part of Ottoman life. Islam places great significance on cleanliness, and hamams were the only place to go for a hot, soapy bath. They were buildings of such importance to society, that the empire’s greatest architects were often employed to design them. But then came the advent of indoor baths with hot water, and the primary function of the hamam vanished. Sure, they were still pleasant communal areas to meet friends and catch up on gossip, but for day-to-day life, taking a hot shower at home was a lot more convenient.

What to do? These are buildings of great architectural beauty, and you can’t just let them sit around empty. Luckily, hamams generate a lot of interest from visitors. For many, a trip to Istanbul would be incomplete without experiencing the famous Turkish bath. So in order to survive, many of Istanbul’s hamams have reoriented themselves to serve tourists.

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Built in 1583 by the master architect Mimar Sinan, the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı is incredible, all domes, white marble and water. After decades of neglect, it was purchased privately and beautifully restored by its new owner, who was intent on returning it to its original purpose. The interior bathing room is stunning, with a large marble stone in the center, bathed in rays of light. Looking at it, I could hardly wait to get my clothes off.

And I soon did. While I was heating my body on the stone, hypnotized by the star-shaped holes in the ceiling, an assistant came to fetch me. He sat me down at a sink, grabbed my wrist, lifted my arm into the air, and began to scrub me with a rough sponge-glove. After scrubbing the dead skin off every inch of my body, he soaped me up with something called a “loofah”: basically a cloth sack that’s pulled tight to produce an unbelievable amount of foam. He remained silent throughout the procedure, and was extremely thorough. Hamams are not for the modest. Or ticklish.

Eventually, he finished, and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more clean. I was helped into a big, comfy robe and then led into the lounge area to relax with sherbet and tea, before my massage. For 25 blissful minutes, my back and legs were worked by strong, professional hands. At the end of the session, after being cleaned, rubbed, scrubbed, and massaged, I was amazed to find myself hovering in the air. I floated out of the hamam, up the hill to our apartment and settled slowly onto our couch, like a leaf falling onto a patch of soft grass.

The Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam – Website

Location of the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı on Our Map

Buy Fluffy Hamam Towels Here

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May 7, 2013 at 9:00 am Comments (3)

The Rüstem Paşa Camii

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Built on a steep hill in the middle of a busy market area, the Rüstem Paşa mosque is yet another masterpiece from the ubiquitous master architect Mimar Sinan. If you weren’t carefully looking for the entrance, you would almost certainly miss it: just a narrow set of nondescript stairs leading up from the street. So ascending these steps and emerging into the mosque’s spacious courtyard is quite a surprise.

Istanbul-Mosques

The surprises continue as you enter the mosque. The Rüstem Paşa is famed for its magnificent use of Iznik tiles, which cover every conceivable inch of the interior. Considering their age (the mosque was completed in 1563), the tiles are unbelievably colorful and the generous number of windows shows them in the best possible light. We loved this mosque — not only was it the most beautiful we had yet seen, but it’s also among the most welcoming to visitors. They even pass out free copies of the Koran… in English! I’ll probably never get around to reading it, but you never know when a Koran is going to come in handy.

On an unfortunate side note, we saw some abhorrent tourist behavior here. I can’t fathom what gets into people’s heads, but mosques are active places of worship which graciously welcome visitors. But an outrageous number of tourists in the Rüstem Paşa were gleefully breaking every rule: stepping over the ropes signed with “Please Stay Behind”, shouting to each other, wearing horribly inappropriate clothing, and groping everything they could get their hands on. And when I saw a couple sneak past the protective curtain up onto the pulpit, I came perilously close to scolding complete strangers. Tourists behaving badly damage the reputation of us all.

Location of the Rüstem Paşa Camii

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April 6, 2013 at 5:58 pm Comments (15)

Three Mosques of Üsküdar

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Much of our first day on the Asian side of Istanbul was spent visiting Üsküdar’s mosques. There are over 180 in just this section of the city, so we had a lot to choose from, but stuck to three of the most well-known: the Yeni Valide, Şemsi Paşa and Atik Valide.

The Yeni Valide Camii
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Üsküdar’s “Mosque of the New Queen Mother” was the very first mosque we visited in Turkey. Completed in 1703 by Emetullah Rabia Gülnûş, the mother of Sultan Ahmed III, the mosque is situated near the Bosphorus and its twin minarets have become part of Istanbul’s Asian profile. As a girl, the Greek Emetullah had led a peaceful existence on Crete before being kidnapped by the Ottomans and sent to the harem of Sultan Mehmet IV. Lovely and intelligent, she soon attracted the sultan’s favor and bore him two sons, both of whom would become sultans as well.

Since this was our first mosque, its huge dome, colorful tiles, intricate patterns, and stunning courtyard were especially astounding to us. The Queen Mother is buried here, in a tomb protected by a nicely-wrought cage of green iron. [More Pics | Location]

The Şemsi Paşa Camii
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This tiny mosque on the Bosphorus coast was unfortunately encircled by the massive construction of the Marmara project, which will link Asia to Europe by subway. It was built in 1581 by Mimar Sinan for the Grand Vizier (prime minister) of the time, Şemsi Paşa.

The noise and mess of construction really detracted from our experience here, which is a shame since the Şemsi Paşa is considered one of Istanbul’s architectural gems. There’s a pleasing simplicity to the humble mosque, with its lone dome and single minaret, and when there’s no construction, the courtyard with its view over the Bosphorus must be wonderful. [More Pics | Location]

The Atik Valide Külliyesi
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Completed in 1583, the mosque of the Atik Valide Külliyesi was our favorite of the day. It took a while to reach, as it’s found at the top of a hill further inland, but was worth the effort. The mosque was built at the behest of the Sultan Valide Nurbanu, wife of Selim the Sot (one of the Ottoman Empire’s most disastrous rulers) and mother of Sultan Murad III. During her time as valide sultan (mother of the sultan), she exercised enormous influence, and was recognized as the true power behind the throne. She died in 1583, possibly poisoned by Genoese agents, and was buried in the Hagia Sofia.

The complex (Külliyesi) which Nurbanu commissioned in Üsküdar was the final masterpiece of Istanbul’s ubiquitous architect Mimar Sinan, and includes a dervish lodge, insane asylum, and soup kitchen. The mosque is glorious, sporting a wide central dome surrounded by five smaller domes, but is very nearly eclipsed in beauty by the attached courtyard, where there are old burnt trees, a fountain and a popular tea house. We love this aspect of mosques; they double as community centers, providing a place hang out even when there’s no service. [More Pics | Location]

More Pictures from the Yeni Valide Camii
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March 20, 2013 at 7:11 am Comments (2)
Our First Hamam: The K?l? Ali Pa?a It's hard to imagine that we could have found a better place for our first Turkish bath than the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. This historic hamam in Tophane is one of Istanbul's most beautiful, reopened in 2012 after years of restoration. We were invited to visit on a Sunday afternoon.
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