Origin of the Turkish Bath

About the history and origins of the famous Turkish baths or bathhouses.


Origin of the Turkish Bath. "Aristocratic British travelers, in the 18th century, were becoming more and more beguiled by the pleasures of the Islamic baths, or hammams. Their accounts glowed with poetic enthusiasm. 'It was ecstatic enjoyment, it was Elysium, nothing seemed wanting to perfect bliss,' one freshly bathed adventurer rhapsodized. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (whose grimy hands were considered remarkable even by the French) attended a wedding reception at 'one of the finest baths in Constantinople,' where the young bridesmaids 'appeared without other ornament or covering than their own long hair braided with pearl or ribbon. . . . 'Tis not easy to represent to you the beauty of the sight,' she concluded, 'most of them being well proportioned and white skinned; all of them perfectly smooth and polished by frequent use of bathing. . . .'

"When Victoria took the throne in 1837, Windsor Castle was plagued with 53 overflowing cesspools. There were no baths at all in Buckingham Palace at the time of her coronation, and those of her subjects who thought such matters important made do with portable hip baths that had to be filled by hand. Reformers raised their voices against this deplorable lag in basic hygiene. 'We must have a standard of cleanliness as well as of truth,' David Urquhart pleaded. 'We must look for one tested by long experience and fixed from ancient days--this is The Bath.'

"The Bath, as Urquhart saw it, was nothing less than the complete Islamic treatment, with its emphasis upon cleansing the pores from within by means of perspiration as well as from without by means of soap and water. It was Urquhart who named it the 'Turkish Bath,' and it was he who led the fight for the building of 2 large public baths in London--fitted, of course, with private cubicles where proper Victorians could sweat in seemly solitude."

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