Steam rises anew in Turkey's historic bath houses

Sat Sep 26, 2009 8:13pm EDT
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By Alexandra Hudson

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Old Istanbul's bath houses hosted scheming Pashas and shapely concubines before modern bathrooms sent them into decline, but their appeal to tourists and the growth of the spa industry promise a revival.

Developers are spending millions of dollars buying and restoring Istanbul's finest hammams, or steam baths, after decades of neglect. They are banking on rising tourist numbers and a surge of interest among Turks in Ottoman customs.

"There is a good future for hammams. People have realized they are a strong business and there is a lot of interest in buying or managing them," said Aydin Bulut, manager of the Suleymaniye hammam.

His bath was built in 1557 by Mimar Sinan, the prolific architect behind Istanbul's most celebrated structures.

Price tags are high. Istanbul's Cagaloglu Hammam -- built in 1741 and boasting Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II and Florence Nightingale among visitors -- is on sale for $16 million according to estate agents Remax Turkey.

The smaller Ayakapi hammam, also built by Sinan but not currently used as a bath, is for sale for $3 million, they said.

The success of the handful of tourist-focused historic baths including the Cagaloglu, where a scrub and massage can cost up to $55, has persuaded developers of the business potential of Istanbul's dozens of other hammams.

Tourists are keen to experience them, their imaginations fueled by tales of the sensuous Orient. Turkey had 26.3 million visitors in 2008 and aims to attract an annual 63 million by 2023 with a program to boost infrastructure and market new destinations and vacation themes, including health and wellness.   Continued...

<p>Men rest in a traditional hammam (bath) in Kayseri, central Turkey, in this June 27, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/Files</p>