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September 28, 2009

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Istanbul's bath houses steam up again

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 US$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 US$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 US$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.

Foreigners' eagerness to visit centuries-old hammams has helped reignite Turks' interest, which declined decades ago with the availability of hot water at home, said Nurhan Atasoy, resident scholar of the Turkish Cultural Foundation.

"When I hear my foreign friends wanting to go to hammams and talking about their experiences I envy them. I think I ought to look into it again," said the 75-year-old, who went to hammams as a child with her mother before switching to showers.

The baths' revival reflects a wider pattern of resurgent interest in Ottoman life in Turkey, a state founded in 1923 after the chaotic collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In its early decades it emphasized modernity and break with tradition.

"Since the 1980s everything Ottoman has been in vogue," said Nina Ergin, an Ottoman expert at Istanbul's Koc University.


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