There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about Istanbul, or erstwhile Byzantium and Constantinople, in the Republic of Turkey, that’s as enchanting as it is enigmatic, given its artistic and regal antiquity. Right by the shore of the Bosphorous Strait on the European side, overlooking Asia across the blue ribbon, stands the majestic Çırağan Palace Kempinski hotel, the last residence of the Turkish Sultans from the glorious Ottoman era.
The architectural magnificence and royal grandeur of the Çırağan (meaning “spreading light”) Palace is captivating – glittering chandeliers, Ottoman and Baroque style interiors, high ceilings, plush Turkish carpets, luxuriant gardens lined with palm trees along the waterfront – all befitting of a sovereign, serenading his harem of alluring women amorously on these very grounds, so much so, that you start walking around with an arched stance, like a Sultan yourself, surveying your transient kingdom!
And if anything exemplifies opulence, it is the Sultan Suite in the heritage palace wing of the hotel. It is one of the most expensive suites in the world (€ 30,000 a night) and the largest in Europe, with a handmade marble Hamam (Turkish Bath) attached to its master bedroom, replete with gold plated and crystal faucets, a private steam room and rain shower and your own Hamam attendants! Italian operatic tenor, Luciano Pavarotti was the first guest of this luxurious suite once the palace was restored and opened to the public as a Kempinski hotel in 1992, followed by U2’s Bono, Madonna and Oprah Winfrey, amongst many other global luminaries as its guests in residence.
The Turkish Hamam is a culturally significant bathing ritual that harks back hundreds of years to the Ottoman empire when the custom began in Anatolia and it was not just for the privileged or the imperial classes. The Turks built communal bathhouses where men and women, belonging to any rank or strata of society, could enjoy a Hamam, albeit at separate times, given the Islamic way of life. The Hamam was an extremely important inclusion in people’s lives, from the beginning of life to the very end. The word Hamam simply means a Turkish bath, but nothing about it is simple; it’s a self-indulgent and leisurely bathing ceremony. Back then; Hamams were used not just for cleansing and relaxing the body, but also for celebratory events with song and dance, food and drink, akin to a party, but in a bathhouse! The Sultans, along with their wives and harems of beautiful girls, indulged in Hamams in their palaces that went on for hours. Interestingly, the emperor as well as his wife or wives, were both addressed as Sultan.
The hotel’s Sanitas Spa recreates the magical ambience, reminiscent of the Ottoman Hamam times in the palace, with the 40-minute Pasha / Sultan treatment (€130) being the most popular. In the serene environs of the spa, a glass of refreshing apple water is brought to you, as your Hamam attendant gently washes your feet. She then helps you disrobe and wraps a hand-woven, thin, but highly absorbent, cotton wash cloth (Peştemal) around your waist and takes you into the exotically aromatic and heated Hamam. It’s almost minimalistic in its white marble design, with a massive marble slab in the middle of the bathhouse, but for the ornate wall carvings and designs like the original palace Hamam.
As you lie down on the warm marble slab, called “göbek taşı” in Turkish, the heat begins to envelop your body and soul, and as you relax and give in to the soothing sounds of the Turkish music, the outside world ceases to exist. The attendant then scrubs your body with a specially textured mitten that exfoliates and cleanses the skin, improving blood circulation, making your skin exceptionally soft to the touch, like silk. She then covers your person in a fragrant soap foam, making you float away on a dreamy white cloud, as she massages your head and body with aromatic oils, revitalizing your muscles, with special attention to your hands and feet. Then she shampoos the oil off your hair with an exceptional amalgamation of a head massage and rinse. Big metal cauldrons of water, first hot and then cold, are then poured over you to rinse off the soap and just like that, the most sensual bath experience of your life comes to an end with a cup of tea or the very sweet Turkish sherbet.
At no point during the ritual do you want to open your eyes and especially when the Hamam is over. You’d think getting bathed by another human being in a manner so intimate would be odd and somewhat embarrassing, but it surprisingly isn’t; it feels absolutely natural to renew your body and soul, in a bath session as indulgent and spiritual as this. The oriental Haman ritual eclipses any kind of spa experience you’ve ever had and spoils you for life. The Sehrazat (55 minutes / € 165) and VIP Hamams (80 minutes / € 500) on the menu are amped up, more indulgent versions of the Pasha / Sultan Hamam to spoil your body and nourish your soul. The Çırağan spa has male Hamam attendants for men and female ones for women, like in the Ottoman era, but in today’s times, if a man requests for a female attendant or vice versa, the spa complies. Who knew water, soap suds and magical hands could come together in such exotic harmony?
From eating authentic Ottoman cuisine at Tuğra, their signature restaurant, with recipes straight from the kitchens of the Sultans like the incredibly delicious Testi (Turkish for clay pot) Lamb Casserole to bathing like the Sultans in the Hamam, to savoring a cup of Turkish coffee in the gazebo, watching the ships go by, living life Sultan-size in the Çırağan Palace is undeniably a hedonistic affair, with the Hamam ritual being the most momentuous, and unforgettable aspect of it all.