2018.03.23 - Turkish baths in Hungary
Turkish baths in Hungary
Hungarians have mixed feelings about Turkish culture, because the Ottoman Empire was our biggest enemy for centuries, but at the same time Hungarian freedom fighters often found refuge on Turkish land and felt at home in the East. As for what people think about the Turkish baths of Hungary, the ambivalence mentioned above doesn’t apply, since we are proud of the fact that from the countries occupied by the Ottoman Empire it is in Buda where the most Turkish baths have survived – more or less in their original form.
Muslim Turks didn’t forget about the pleasant things in life even when they were busy conquering the world. What is more, they were wise enough to consider this to be a religious obligation. According to the Islamic belief, one has to wash ritually before each prayer, and Muslims have to take a proper bath if they have done something that was rather unclean. It is sure that for the Turkish conquerors of the Middle Ages it was a relaxing feeling to wash off the dust of battles, and at the same time to get rid of the mental burden. Still, they would have visited the baths even if they didn’t have to take part in tiring battles, simply because they liked to socialise there very much.
“This lazy time of relaxation, this laid back resting, this fatigue and renewal at the same time, the pleasure of not doing anything at all, the feeling of getting tired that goes away after a while and gives place to strength that returns – well, this feeling is unbelievably pleasant. If there is any place where Turks enjoy the pleasures of life it is in the bath, where they sip on coffee, smoke tobacco and drink sherbet. This happiness is nothing else but thinking about life on the dream lap of soft calmness.” – This is what Bertalan Szemere, the second Prime Minister of Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49 wrote, who temporarily found refuge in Constantinople in 1849.
The Turks mocked the dirtiness of the people living in the countries they had conquered in Europe, and they considered it to be their mission to build baths, in order to raise the western peoples from the barbarian state. (It is another thing that the local non-Muslims weren’t really allowed to visit these sanctuaries of eastern culture.) Dozens of baths were built in Hungary only, at least six in Buda, three in Pécs and Székesfehérvár each, and there were Turkish baths in Gyula, Szeged, Szekszárd, Bács, Becskerek, Hatvan, Lippa and Eger too, estimation is that altogether 75 baths were constructed in the period when the Ottoman Empire ruled Hungary. It goes without saying that this number was still much smaller than the number of baths in the empire’s capital, as in the middle of the 19th century locals could choose from more than 400 baths in Constantinople. Some of these were especially for women, some were for men only and there were those which only received women in certain parts of the day or on designated days of the week and men at other times – but never women and men at the same time.
Some of the baths built in Hungary during the Ottoman rule are still working, for instance Király bath, Veli Bej bath and Rudas medicinal bath in Budapest, and the Török bath in Eger. These spas were constructed right next to hot springs and have been used – with a couple of interruptions – ever since. The buildings had to be renovated a few times, but the buildings and the pool areas still reflect the characteristics of traditional Turkish baths very well.
Those who visited a Turkish bath first entered a room that was called cool room but actually was a hot place. This was where the regeneration process started, in the Turkish version of sauna: the floor was wet and heated from below, generating light steam that was warm but not as thick and heavy as in Russian baths. After ten minutes the guest washed their body and went on to a cooler room, where their skin was cleaned with a brush. Then came a plunge into a pool full of warm or cold water, or perhaps another sweat session, and the process ended with wrapping themselves in a clean towel and lying down for a while to muse about the passing nature of life.