Pleasure Palaces Of Empire – Taking A Bath: Roman, Ottoman & Austro-Hungarian Baths In Budapest

The Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were very different entities. On the surface they seem to have little in common, besides the fact that all three eventually collapsed. It is difficult to find clear connections among the three. They were separated by time, hundreds and even thousands of years apart. They were also largely separated by space. The Roman world was centered largely on the Mediterranean Sea, the Ottomans around the near east, the Austro-Hungarians in east-central Europe.

Each of these empires also radiated outward and at certain points managed to overlap, if not in the same historical time period, than in the same geographic location centuries apart. One of the best places to see this is in Budapest. It was here that the Romans built a city on the western side of the Danube called Aquincum – in today’s Obuda area – to guard their northern frontier. A millennium and a half later the Ottoman Turks occupied and then recreated Buda in their image. Still later, Austria-Hungary oversaw the expansion of the city into a political, industrial and cultural powerhouse. Quite miraculously, there is still one commonality among all these empires to be found in the city today, baths.

The Great Public Bath at Aquincum

The Great Public Bath at Aquincum (Credit : Bjoertvedt)

From Romans To Ottomans – Bathing In Buda
The Romans were great lovers of baths. Much of their social life took place at imperial bath complexes known as thermae. These were constructed in cities throughout the empire. A thermae in Aquincum can still be seen today as part of the excavated ruins. In addition to thermaes there were private bathing facilities called balneum. Aquincum also has one of these, which was part of a villa that belonged to a wealthy citizen. Such ruins offer the first window into baths and bathing culture in the land which would one day become Hungary. The warm springs that simmer beneath the surface of Budapest have been exploited by each empire that occupied the area since antiquity. They are the city’s greatest natural resource, numbering over 120 in Buda alone. Though the Roman baths lost their purpose not long after the empire fell, the ones built by the Ottoman Turks many centuries later have had a much different destiny.

One of the very few sites left over from the Ottoman occupation are the baths which were constructed in the 1560’s and 1570’s. Though bathing culture had come down to them through the Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire), the Ottoman Turkish bath facilities were unique in that they were also part of religious customs, specifically ablutions. Thus their baths were built adjacent to mosques. The mosques in Buda have long since disappeared, but the baths have managed to survive. On the west side of the Danube, close to Elizabeth Bridge, stands the unique domed structure of the Rudas Baths. It looks like something that might be found tucked away in a quiet corner of Constantinople. Yet these baths were fundamentally different from the ones in the Ottoman capital city. Whereas a traditional Turkish bath, known as a Hamam, consisted of three rooms, one each for hot and cold soaking, plus a large central room that was filled with steam.

Inside the Kiraly Thermal Bath

Inside the Kiraly Thermal Bath (Credit: Báthory Gábor)

In Ottoman Buda, the bath’s central space consisted of several pools. Rather than being filled with steam it was used as a bath. What is today the Kiraly Thermal Bath was completed under the administration of Pasha Sokoli Mustapha, the Ottoman governor who oversaw the construction of several Turkish baths in Buda. Over four hundred years later the architecture is pretty much unchanged. The outer walls of the bath are square, in the large room they enclose an octagonal chamber topped with a dome which allows in shafts of light. The light projects through the glass, adding an exotic element to the splashing and soaking that goes on inside. Modern bathers relax in the same setting that Ottoman officials once did. The Ottomans and almost all of their architecture have disappeared from Hungary, but their presence can be felt inside Kiraly Thermal Bath. Other Ottoman Turkish baths in Budapest include the Rac and Rudas Baths. These marvels of architecture are also places where Hungarians and tourists rub shoulders while soaking in the history.

Drilling Deep – Szechenyi Surfaces
Modern Budapest bathing culture began in the 19th century as scientific innovation brought thermal waters to the surface in places the Romans and Ottomans could only have dreamed about. With the industrial revolution, drilling technology improved at an incredible rate. Drillers were able to plume formerly unfathomable depths beneath the city. One of the first was a Hungarian engineer by the name of Vilmos Zsigmondy who spent ten years drilling a well that was nearly a thousand meters deep in the area that is now a pond in the City Park (Varosliget). This well provided thermal waters to the Artesian Bath or “old Szechenyi Bath” as it is sometimes called. The Artesian Bath has long since disappeared, but its famous replacement is nearby.

From a touristic point of view, bath and spa culture in Budapest is dominated by the splendid neo-Baroque Szechenyi furdo (Szechenyi thermal bath). Completed in 1913, the Szechenyi takes bathing to a whole new level. It is a world away from the quasi-Oriental aesthetic and sultry exoticism of the Ottoman baths. The Szechenyi has a fin de siècle refinement infused with a tasteful modernization that includes state of the art deck pools, whirlpools and even wave pools. As one of the largest bath complexes in Europe its hosts tens of thousands of visitors each year, many of whom snap photos of elderly men enjoying a soak while playing a game of chess. The magnificence that was Austria-Hungary and the golden age of Budapest permeate Szechenyi still today.

The splendor of Szechenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest

The splendor of Szechenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest

Impossible To Resist – Three Empires That Took The Waters
For all the physical architecture that the Romans, Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians imposed on the cityscapes of Aquincum, Buda and Budapest it is doubtful that any of these empires suspected that baths would be among their most lasting contributions. As different as each empire was, they all found the thermal waters of the area impossible to resist. These waters were harnessed to great effect in baths that can still be visited today. Whether in ruins or modernized, they evoke the grandeur and charm of an imperial golden age’s true pleasure palaces of empire.

 

 

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