The Joy of Steam
Travel Stories: Tony Perrottet went for a simple scrub down at the oldest bath house in Istanbul and discovered a link to the ancient Roman Empire
11.03.05 | 10:29 PM ET
Sex, wine and the baths may ruin our bodies, but they make life worth living.—Ancient Roman gravestone
Arriving in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, built atop the ruins of the Greek city of Byzantium and the Roman capital of Constantinople, I already felt like I’d traveled halfway back in time to the ancient world. Then, in tea houses all over the city, I found dog-eared leaflets advertising the pleasures of Cagaloglu Hamam, the city’s oldest bath house:
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN IN A TURKISH BATH? IF YOU HAVEN’T, YOU’VE MISSED ONE OF LIFE’S GREAT EXPERIENCES AND NEVER BEEN CLEAN!
The sales pitch added that Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, the composer Franz Liszt, Florence Nightingale and Cameron Diaz had all enjoyed steam baths here. No less than 138 films had been shot within the hamam’s walls, and innumerable newspaper stories written:
THE PRESS HAS MUCH PRAISED THIS BATHING HABIT!
How could I resist? For anyone interested in how antiquity has survived to the modern day, a visit to a Turkish bath is essential: the Islamic hamam is possibly the most striking link we have to a key social practice of the Greco-Roman world—especially for a traveler.
Two thousand years ago, if you were visiting any city in the Roman Empire, you would be woken by the melodious bass of a copper gong resounding through the streets at dawn, announcing the opening of the thermae, or heated public baths—a sound, Cicero rhapsodized, that was sweeter than the voices of all the philosophers in Athens. These ancient baths were far more than mere palaces of cleanliness: They were the Western world’s first true entertainment complexes, combining the facilities of modern gyms, massage parlors, restaurants, community centers and tourist information offices. They were the ideal place to meet locals or get hot travel tips: In those palatial halls, citizens of all classes lolled by the pools, met their friends, played ball games, relaxed, flirted, drank wine and even had elegant candle-lit dinners. And like nightclubs or gyms today, a city’s baths were unofficially graded: Some were chic, others déclassé; some were expensive, others cost only a copper; some were magnificently designed, as large as cathedrals, decorated with enormous mosaics of Neptune and his dolphins.
In short, a visit to the baths was the ideal way to enter the social life of a strange city.
Modern Turkey offers a unique connection to this ancient tradition. Two thousand years ago it was the Roman province of Asia Minor, and it’s the only place in the Mediterranean where the historical line back to the thermae is unbroken. In Western Europe, the habit of public bathing did not survive the collapse of the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages, good Christians became ashamed of their bodies, and showed their repugnance of earthly matters by refusing to wash, remaining smelly, squalid and flea-bitten until the late 19th century. But in the Eastern half of the Empire, soon known as Byzantium, the great Roman baths stayed open, and were even more popular after the Ottoman Empire conquered Turkey in the 15th century A.D. Islam adhered to the ancient obsession with personal cleanliness, as well as the Greco-Roman tradition of bathing in public. Of course, there were some big changes, too: Total nudity was forbidden under Islam; men wore loincloths, and women were provided with separate baths. But the connection is still powerful. In modern Turkey, many bath houses even still stand on the original classical sites. In fact, the very name “Turkish bath” was given by British visitors to Constantinople in the 16th century, who saw the ancient Roman thermae still in operation and incorrectly assumed they were an Ottoman invention.
Today, there are over 60 baths still officially registered in Istanbul. Sadly, these last hamams are under siege, as Turks in the big city increasingly prefer Western-style bathing in the privacy of their homes. Young Turks find steam rooms decidedly outré—several warned me that they were dens of disease and foot-rot, frequented only by country bumpkins, geriatrics and male prostitutes. And yet the venerable institution staggers on.
Visiting Istanbul was obviously my big chance to experience this ancient travelers’ tradition. Still, I found myself delaying: The embarrassing fact was, I’d never had a massage, let alone visited an actual bath house back home in New York. But by the time I’d picked up my tenth leaflet singing the praises of Cagaloglu Hamam, I finally decided to give this famous washing experience a shot. After all, it was reputed to be the most palatial bath house extant in all Turkey, and has been in continuous operation at least since 1741. An English photographer I was traveling with reluctantly agreed to join me. I wasn’t sure if Nik was a wise companion: Even more than most of us self-conscious Westerners, he viewed public bath houses as deeply seedy places, and held an unshakable conviction, apparently gleaned from “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Midnight Express,” that Turks were polymorphously perverse.
But we grabbed our towels and headed off valiantly into the night, on a modest expedition into the damp underbelly of antiquity.