Istanbul, Türkiye – On a hill near the heart of the UNESCO-listed Zeyrek district sits Cinili Hamam, a 500-year-old Turkish bath with an uninterrupted history dating back to the heights of the Ottoman Empire and the era of its legendary naval commander, Hayreddin Barbarossa.
Commissioned by the Grand Admiral and built by the famous architect Mimar Sinan around 1530, the so-called “Tiled Baths” was the pinnacle of the city’s architectural splendor and sophistication, famous for its distinctive blue and white Iznik tiles .
The centuries that followed have not been kind to this long-forgotten wonder. As the Ottoman Empire gave way to the increasingly westernized Turkey of the 18th and 19th centuries, sensibilities shifted away from older traditions, such as hammams, leading to ruin for many people – including Cinili Hamam.
Many of his fixtures – including his eponymous tiles – were dismantled for sale to international museums and private collectors, leaving behind a hollow shell.
Today, after a long and ambitious 13-year restoration effort, this lost treasure has been revitalized through the efforts of the Marmara Group and is once again a place of cleaning and relaxation, but also a place that reflects much of the hidden history of Turkey.
What was initially planned to be just a luxury bathhouse has evolved significantly, accommodating Turkey’s growing art scene as a new art venue, including an on-site museum furnished with artifacts discovered during the effort reconstruction.
“We didn’t know any of these stories when we started the excavation and the renovation process,” founding director Koza Yazgan told Al Jazeera. “We found the Byzantine cisterns underneath. All the objects we found – all the fragments of tiles and other Byzantine and Roman objects, some dating back to the 5th century – take us on a journey through 1,500 years.
To mark the conclusion of the restoration work, the Marmara Group and curator Anlam de Coster have created a special and unique art exhibition, held in the bathing areas of the resort. Entitled Healing Ruins, it presents the works of 22 local and international artists around themes of personal and societal transformation.
The phrase “healing the ruins” has multiple meanings, suggesting that purification, creation, and repair can only be achieved through a difficult process, much like the cleansing rituals of the hammam. Not only do these ruins heal themselves; the act of rebuilding – here and elsewhere – can have a transformative effect on those who undertake this task.
For de Coster, simply entering the hammam triggers a release of the senses, allowing each person to blend into the other.
“All of these elements – fire, earth, air and water – exist in this sanctuary. We first believe that water must be the essential element – for purification and cleaning – but, without fire, hammams cannot exist. Fire can be destructive, but you can also build things with fire. It removes the old and ushers in the new.
“There are a variety of mediums used in the exhibition that relate to the four elements,” she continued. “Added to this is the more esoteric, more alchemical reference, of the four elements which have existed since the dawn of time. The artists of the female section especially make a lot of reference to these rituals of alchemical transformation.
The women’s section of the hammam is dominated by three imposing pillars from the Tectonie series by French sculptor Marion Verboom. Featuring elements and symbols representing different cultures from history – the Greek Omphalos, a caryatid, a honeycomb motif of the capital Rome, an Etruscan depiction of the womb – the columns provide an anchor perfect for a collection reflecting the weight of time.
“My studio practice interests me a lot in glass, plaster, resins, concrete, ceramics; all materials that change from soft or liquid to hard with catalysis or firing,” Verboom said. “The subject has its own schedule, which I dedicate myself to… The subject also gives me a sense of time and history,” she added.
“This feeling is very strong in the Cinili Hamam. All the creations of time through accumulated layers are a source of astonishment and give me the desire to create. I have to research and assemble, rather than creating a shape out of nowhere.
The exhibition also includes 12 new site-specific commissions, each created in response to the hammam. These include sculptures, paintings, drawings, photographs and installations; each is a continuation of their creator’s unique methodology and perspective and inspired by their own visits to Cinili Hamam.
Turkish designer Ezgi Turksoy’s ceramic installation, titled A Floor Talisman, takes the form of a ring of bright white porcelain seashells arranged on the tiles. Drawing on elements of classical mysticism, it aims to reflect the nature of the hammam as a place of refuge and personal renewal.
“The circle has a lot of meaning and symbolic value in esoteric cultures and traditions,” Turksoy explained. “There is no beginning. There is no end. It represents birth and continuity. It represents divinity. For me, it all really tied into the history of this building, because this building has been through a lot.
“A circle can also represent a gate or a safety boundary,” she added. “In esoteric traditions, you build a circle around yourself, which creates a boundary that you set between you and what is outside; a safe realm that you create for yourself, in which to heal. I’m also obsessed with seashells; One thing I really like about them – in terms of symbolic value – is that it’s something that this little creature creates to protect itself. It’s hard, but it’s fragile.
Once Cinili Hamam resumes operations as a fully functioning public bath – currently planned for March 2024 – the complex will continue to host a program of arts events, cementing it as a cultural hub, with its rooftop garden and repaired underground Byzantine cisterns, which will make it a unique place. exhibition space within the ancient city.
At the same time, great efforts have been made to ensure that the historical details of the hammam remain preserved and visible. Fragmented layers of plaster were cleaned but left intact, exposing the different generations of historic murals.
Elements of the original floor tiles were left in place and incorporated into the new flooring. An entire underground support structure was excavated to make way for the hammam’s modern water supply equipment to keep the Byzantine cisterns free of modern machinery.
Visitors can admire the archaeological artifacts on display in the hammam museum, designed by Atelier Bruckner, whose centerpiece is a collection of approximately 3,000 fragments of Iznik tiles, representing the 37 unique patterns that once decorated the walls interiors.
The museum also provides an insight into the baths’ incredibly sophisticated water and heating systems, as well as interactive experiences that allow visitors to explore a virtual reconstruction of the Cinili Hamam, as it was at its peak in the 16th century, as well as a vast collection of objects. associated with Turkish hammam culture.
“With the excavations in and around the bath, we found many fragments of tiles and other objects,” explained construction and projects director Yavuz Suyolcu. “Normally when you find an artifact, it just goes to the government. But since it was a tile bed and we found many tile fragments, we started thinking about displaying them on site.
“We decided to build a museum next to the hammam to display all these artifacts, as well as to allow people to better understand the history of the bathing culture,” Yazgan said. “We also work with archeology museums. They control what we do, how we document and where we put everything, but our in-house archaeologists do the work.