Shafts of misty light pierce the steam of the Cagaloglu Hammam in Istanbul's Eminönü district, once the heart of walled Constantinople and the seat of the Ottoman sultanate. Built by Sultan Mahmud I in 1741 to provide revenue for the Haghia Sophia mosque, the marble rooms of the bathhouse are opulent, timeless pleasure-domes of fountains and gilded columns. In the women's section, a pleasant gabble of feminine voices mingles with the sound of sluicing water; the bathers gossip languidly, gently washing one another's hair. Nothing could be more authentically Turkish than this.
Or so the tourists like to imagine. Outside the bathhouse, engraved in stone on the pavement, are the words, "1,000 Places to See Before You Die". They come from The New York Times and are written in English. There is no Turkish translation - not surprisingly, because most Turks would die before entering this place. The entrance features a montage of photographs of Kate Moss, half-naked and styled as a bejewelled Ottoman courtesan. Of all the models in the world, Moss must be the leading candidate for "least convincing Ottoman", but she is certainly part of a long tradition of western women who enjoy playing the role.
"I've never been to a real hammam," says the equally pretty Çigse Baranok, a native Istanbullu with a keen interest in fashion and beauty. "I don't think it's as hygienic as a personal bathtub, and since I have a bathtub in my house, it would be impractical to go out for a bath." Of the approximately 150 public hammams of the Ottoman era, only a handful are still operational. They are undoubtedly magnificent architectural treasures, but since the advent of modern plumbing, only tourism - and the well-cultivated western fantasy of the authentic Istanbul hammam experience - has kept these monuments in business.
According to Cihan Girgin, of the Cagaloglu Hammam staff, at least 80 per cent of the guests are tourists. "It's expensive, for local customers," he says, adding that Turks are put off by the neighbourhood tourist touts, whose values he describes in unprintable language. But Turkey is now experiencing a revived enthusiasm for all things Ottoman, from architecture to foreign policy, and suddenly Turks themselves are wondering about the authentic Turkish hammam experience.
"The number of Turks who come is rising - slowly," says Girgin. A flurry of articles has appeared in the international and local press about a Turkish hammam revival, although it appears that one of the chief claims - that the Cagaloglu Hammam is to be sold to spa-hungry development investors - is incorrect. That, Girgin explains, was an unfortunate rumour arising from a complicated family feud that has now been settled.
Hammams were a focus of Istanbul's social activity during the Ottoman era. The westernising reformers of the 19th-century Tanzimat period, however, had their doubts: a modern city, they believed, should be organised around plazas and wide boulevards, like Paris. The urban planners of the newborn Turkish Republic were even less enthusiastic about Ottoman Islamic architecture. Their ambitious modernisation project involved replacing these gathering places with secular substitutes, such as public parks centred on looming statues of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Hammams were demolished to make room for concrete apartment blocks - with running water.
Since then, Turkey's relationship with its Ottoman past, and with the Islamic architecture that symbolises it, has been ambivalent. Hammams, in particular, were viewed by the early republican nationalists as un-western. And this is exactly why westerners have always loved them. A visit to an Ottoman-era steam bath may no longer be an authentic Turkish tradition, but hammams are the pillar of an uninterrupted tourist tradition that may be traced to European travel writing of the 16th century. The English poet and novelist Julia Pardoe visited Constantinople in 1836 and breathlessly reported in her Beauties of the Bosphorus the "thick sulphate steam", which "filled the whole space", creating "an imaginary spectacle making me doubt whether I was dreaming or not."
The "dreamlike" lives of Turkish women, wrote the German Bernhard Stein in 1897, were passed in "happy inactivity" in the hammams, where they spent their days "unveiled, in their patterned robes, smoking, gossiping, laughing, suckling their children or painting their faces". The paintings of European Orientalists, Ingres in particular, featured Turkish hammams prominently; no European coffee table book about Turkey would be complete without photographs of them.
Tourists, says Girgin, "don't really know what a hammam is. But they read the guide book: 'You can have a belly dance, go to the bazaar, go to a hammam.' They don't know exactly what's going on, but they get interested." Rachel Roberts, an American field artillery officer now stationed in Germany after a tour in Iraq, was visiting the Cagaloglu Hammam on a holiday-weekend tour of the city. "I learnt about it from Rick Steves," she said, referring to the travel guide Rick Steves' Istanbul, which she pulled from her handbag. She has been interested, she said, in the region's bathhouse traditions since studying them in a college history class.
Tourism has long been one of the major sources of revenue for the Turkish economy, and Turks, by long tradition, are exceptionally willing to please foreign guests. Thus have Turks been eager to offer their hammams to foreign visitors, albeit, perhaps, with some puzzlement at their peculiar tastes. As a child, Girgin recalls, he was taken to a hammam only once. "I was frightened," he remembers. It was not until adulthood that he realised hammams were good business. Now he is immensely proud of the hammam tradition: "Visitors can see the past. It still continues, like a dream."
So, fortunately, thanks to dreamy tourists, the greatest of the hammams have been preserved - unlike quite a bit of Istanbul's priceless heritage, which is all too often destroyed to make way for more profitable ventures. One beautiful example of preservation is the Çemberlitas Hammam, near Ali Baba's tomb, built in 1584 by Sinan for the sultan's wife. The street level has since risen, and the entrance is now enveloped by tourist shops selling cheap knick-knacks. But the interior is breathtaking: around the bathing area, private cool cubicles with marble fountains are separated from the centre by marble walls carved with blossoms and Ottoman couplets.
The vast marble caldarium, lit naturally by crescent and moon-shaped windows carved into the dome of the cupola, is a wormhole in the tunnel of time that gives rise readily to fantasy; it is easy to imagine the women around you plotting palace intrigues, scheming to advance their sons' careers and to choose for them suitable wives, so long as you don't think too hard about their imminent return to Minnesota.
Rumours of an Ottoman revival in Turkey are hardly confined to hammams. The government, led for the past seven years by the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has embraced a foreign policy often described, for better or worse, as neo-Ottomanism. The foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, is known for advocating a regional role for Turkey more closely resembling its imperial predecessor's. Films set in the Ottoman era, such as The Last Ottoman, have latterly been hits, as have television programmes with Ottoman themes, such as Noor. There is a growing demand for all manner of Ottoman kitsch, from tiles to faux-Ottoman furniture.
But there is a limit to Turkish patience with a truly Ottoman hammam experience: upper-class Turkish women tend instead to frequent new luxury spas with Ottoman themes, such as the Sanda Spa in the modern, multi-story Istinye Park mall complex, or the Ottoman Spa at the Four Seasons Hotel on the Bosphorus. The latter "takes its inspiration", according to the brochure, from "the enduring mystique and unique qualities of the hammam", and first opened its doors in 2007. The decor is faithfully recreated in carrera marble and very much resembles something Ottoman.
The literary critic Mary Louise Pratt has described the phenomenon of "autoethnography" - a representation of one's own culture made in response to the way it has been portrayed in other cultures - and the revival of hammams in Istanbul is an interesting example of that, according to Nina Cichocki, an Ottoman architectural historian who has written extensively about the history of the Çemberlitas Hammam.
"Turks themselves," Cichocki notes, "contribute to an Orientalist view of their heritage by selecting 19th-century Orientalist mentalities as the basis for 20th-century urban preservation." As for the tourists, well, sometimes it is hard to live up to expectations, as indicated by a conversation overheard at the Galatasaray Hammam near the city's main pedestrian boulevard, Istiklal Caddesi. A trio of tall, pale blondes - Scandinavians from the looks of them - sat on the marble stone, looking vaguely disgruntled. One turned to another tourist and spoke to her in English: "Do you think we are hot?"
"Pardon?" "In Finland a sauna is hotter. Much more hotter." "Oh. Yes, right. Of course."