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.

 

 

An Age That Lives Forever – The Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque In Pecs (Ottoman Hungary #3)

The Mosque of Geza Kasim Pasha seems to have it all, a central location in Pecs’ Szechenyi ter at one of the highest points in the Belvaros (inner city), an original structure that is largely intact with a fascinating history of conflict and conservation. One thing it does not have is a minaret. Two and a half centuries ago it was pulled down. I would never have noticed this omission if not for a second visit to Pecs. After arriving at the train station on a cold and rainy spring day I had to walk through an intermittent downpour to my accommodation southwest of the city center. There are few things worse than dragging a suitcase through puddles while being pelted by raindrops. I clung to the sidewalk along Rakoczi utca while passing by shops, banks, small scale residences and apartments. Quickening my pace I lamented the weather, my baggage and a strange adherence to an odd personal superstition that does not allow me to use umbrellas.

I kept my head down for long stretches, as if not looking up would somehow keep me dry. This trek would have been an altogether miserable one if not for a startling sight that caused me to pause. On the south side of the street, sandwiched between an ochre colored building that housed a medical clinic and a cream colored four story structure, was a mosque. A minaret pierced the sky just behind it. It is hard to imagine a stranger setting for a mosque. Centuries of development had remade Rakoczi utca time and again, but the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque was still standing. The mosque looked to be smaller than its counterpart in  Szechenyi ter, but it did have the characteristic minaret from where in the 16th and 17th centuries a muezzin sounded the call to prayer five times each day. I made a mental note to visit the mosque before I left Pecs.

Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque in Pecs

Side by side – Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque in Pecs (Credit: Peter Lóránd)

“Caravans of camels laden with the merchandise” – Ottoman Pecs
It is rare that a person comes into contact with another world, but seeing the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque made the distant past suddenly seem close at hand. The building transcended space and time, acting as a portal to Ottoman Hungary. It made me wonder just what Pecs was like during the Turkish occupation. The remains of that time lie scattered in and around the city center offering a few disparate clues, two mosques and a Muslim burial chapel hinted at the role of Islam in Ottoman society. Not long after the Bishop of Pecs handed over the keys to the city in 1543, Ottoman administrators ordered that most of the Christian churches be converted into mosques. The two still standing in present-day Pecs were subsequently converted back to churches soon after the Habsburg conquest. The idea was to eradicate the physical, spiritual and cultural symbols of Ottoman rule. This had been done to the point where a curious visitor has no other recourse but to rely on historical information to gain any idea of what the Ottoman period in Pecs that lasted from 1543-1686 had actually been like.

Prior to the mid-16th century Pecs had been a town organized by its streets. The Ottoman system was fundamentally different, arranging towns around neighborhoods. The Muslim administrators, soldiers and settlers took over the center as well as the area within the city walls. Very few Muslims lived outside the walls. The exceptions were those who lived near the gates that led to roads out of the city towards Buda, Szigetvar and other important cities. The Christian population was pushed into the suburbs. Each of their neighborhoods was centered on a specific congregation with a church in the center. Christians were still free to practice their religion. The Ottomans brought in their own emigrants from the northern Balkans. These settlers transformed the streets, roofing them over and selling goods from stalls.

The inner part of the city center underwent radical change. What is today the heart of Pecs, Szechenyi ter, had been a marketplace prior to Ottoman rule. It was now turned into a bazaar. One historical account described a scene with “caravans of camels laden with the merchandise from India and the Yemen.”  The orient had arrived in Hungary. The Muslim emigrants were usually much poorer than the Christian inhabitants. They lived in ramshackle structures of haphazard construction and made their living trading an assortment of goods. The ephemeral quality of their humble homes and market stalls is one of the main reasons why Pecs and the rest of Hungary have so few remnants of the Ottoman presence.

Prayer hall of Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque

Prayer hall of Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque (Credit: Zairon)

From Conversion To Transformation – Bringing In The Balkans
The most radical transformation of Pecs was in the religious sphere. The centrality of Islam was on full display in the city. Charitable foundations supported educational institutions. There were five madrasah (Islamic religious schools) and at least twice as many mektebs (elementary schools).  Pecs was the major Muslim educational center in southern Hungary. Mosques matched schools in both number and importance.  In 1663 the Ottoman traveler and scribe Evliya Celebi visited Pecs. His work lists seven large mosques and ten small ones. Several of these had been converted from existing Christian churches. The city’s cathedral was converted to a mosque named after Sultan Suleiman who had led the conquest. Another one, the mosque of Memi Pasha, was built on the site of a medieval Franciscan monastery. The former monastery provided the scaffolding around which the mosque was built.

Both of these would eventually disappear, but the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque which I discovered on that rainy day managed to survive. Its namesake was the great-grandson of Memi Pasha who had established both a mosque and Turkish bath in Pecs. Hassan ordered his mosque built right next to that of his illustrious ancestor. Visiting the mosque brought me as close physically as one can now get to the era of Ottoman Hungary. The exterior of the building is rather simple in design, square shaped, lacking decoration, with two stone bordered windows close to ground level and a round arched window further up. Atop the structure sits a round dome. From the street side this dome hides much of the minaret on the mosque’s southwestern corner. The exit door onto the minaret’s balcony faces mecca.

The lone minaret in Pecs

The lone minaret in Pecs – Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque (Credit: Alesha)

The Essence Of An Era – A Deeply Spirtual Place
Inside I saw what was left of the original interior that had escaped the mosque’s conversion to a Christian chapel. It had been restored back to an approximation of its former glory in the 1960’s. There were painted verses from the Koran, floral decoration and three stalactite arches. It was a deeply spiritual place that seemed far removed from the busy street just outside its walls. I felt a pervasive stillness, a quiet reverence. This was a space that transcended the present, transporting me to an eternal past, the essence of an age that in this space could live on forever. The past was no longer just a part of history, it was also alive. I could feel it within these walls. I could feel it within me.

A Miracle of History – Fusion of Faith: The Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim In Pecs (Ottoman Hungary #2)

One of the more remarkable experiences of my Eastern European travels came in Pecs, the second largest city in southern Hungary. On an early spring Sunday afternoon I disembarked at the eclectic masterpiece which has acted as the city’s railway station since 1900. My objective was an overnight stay in the city’s Belvaros (inner city). It was early afternoon and the wind was blowing hard. I walked up the Jokai Mor utca (Mor Jokai Street) dragging my luggage behind me while trying to shield my eyes from swirls of dust. My only knowledge of the city was what little I had read. Pecs was known for its jewel box of a Belvaros, a magnificent cathedral and an early Christian Necropolis that had been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. The mid-sized city certainly sounded like a nice stopover to break up a train trip between Sarajevo and Budapest. At least that is what I thought until I entered Szechenyi ter (Szechenyi square). My expectations were immediately exceeded.

It was right then and there that the magic of Pecs materialized before my very eyes. To my right was the baroque façade of Saint Sebastian’s Church, in front of which stood the pyrogranite, Art Nouveau Zsolnay Well. Further up was the neo-baroque Town Hall with its grand tower surging into a clear blue sky. Next I saw the colorful confectionary façade of the Nandor Hotel. Further up there was a brass statue of the great Hungarian leader Janos Hunyadi on horseback, adding an element of glorious pageantry. Could this really be just a provincial city, there was something positively royal about it. The square slanted upward as it proceeded to the north where a large column of the Holy Trinity was situated. Behind it was the most stunning sight of all, at the highest point of the square stood what had formerly been the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim and now is the Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The structure was positively magnetic to the eyes. It looked like it had come from another world and truth be told it had.

Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim looking northward from the center of Szechenyi ter

Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim looking northward from the center of Szechenyi ter (Credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor)

If You Build It, They Will Come – The Conquest Of The Conquerors
Most miracles are created by the imagination and based on a belief system, but there are other miracles that can be seen and touched, these are the miracles of history. The fact that there is anything left of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim can rightly be considered a miracle of history. Following the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Pecs, Pasha (Governor) Gazi Kasim ordered the building of the mosque. It took four years to construct and used stones from what had been the Gothic Saint Bartholomew Church which had stood on the city’s main square.

As impressive as the structure looks today, it was even more stunning during the era of Ottoman rule. The famous Ottoman traveler and literary scribe Evilya Celebi commented on the majestic view of the mosque. He compared its size and grandeur to the mosque of Sultan Selim in Istanbul. Celebi was lucky to visit Pecs right before Turkish rule in Hungary suffered a series of devastating setbacks.

The threats to the mosque’s existence began even before the Turks were forced out of Pecs. In 1664 an army under the command of nobleman Miklos Zrinyi besieged and then occupied Pecs. They carried out acts of wanton destruction, pillaging and burning for several days. Yet the Mosque of Pasha Qasim was one of three in the city that survived this rampage. A little over two decades later the Turks were cast out of the city for good. They burnt much of the city, but left the mosque untouched before the conquering Habsburg Army entered Pecs on October 14, 1686. After the Habsburgs took control they held a Thanksgiving dinner inside the mosque to celebrate their conquest. Their initial plan for the city, as well as the mosque, was to destroy it. The Habsburg court in Vienna changed its mind after deciding they needed Pecs to act as a rival to nearby Ottoman held Szigetvar.

Flowers in Szechenyi ter with Saint Sebastian's Church in the backgrounnd

Flowers in Szechenyi ter with Saint Sebastian’s Church in the backgrounnd

Conversions – Spiritual & Physical
The peace and prosperity that Habsburg rule brought to southern Hungary meant something quite different for the mosque. It would survive, but undergo a major transformation in the process. Six years after the Habsburg conquest it was converted into a church. The mosque’s minaret was struck by lightning in the 18th century, before finally being pulled down by the Jesuits in 1766. Then in the 19th century the interior was rebuilt. After 1868 only Christian worship services could be held there. This spiritual conversion was done in parallel with an overhaul of the interior. Such features as the containers for holy water that today stand beside the vestries were taken from the Turkish baths which were once adjacent to the mosque.

A few Islamic details did escape the transformation, such as verses of poetry from the Koran that can still be seen on the interior walls. The exterior, with the exception of the minaret, stayed almost exactly the same as it looked during Ottoman rule. The building that stands today is still the most impressive example of Turkish architecture in Hungary. It consists of an octagonal drum crowned with a dome. On top of the dome is a crescent moon, symbol of Islam, connected to a Christian cross. The duality of the symbolism is not lost on the historically minded viewer.

Interior of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim/Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Interior of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim/Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

The Will To Change – Pattern Of The Past
I was lucky enough to be one of those viewers on that beautiful sunlit, spring day. Walking up to and then around the church/mosque I felt as though I were in an outdoor museum studying an artifact from the past that had been shaped by centuries of spiritual history. A steady succession of beliefs had produced this synthesis of Christian and Islamic sacred architecture, fused together as one now, but still with distinct patterns of the past, imposed one atop another. Here was a lasting remnant of how the world was built, from foundations and fusions, changes and challenges. The will to create and restore, defeating the will to destroy.  Only a miracle of history could have created such a structure.

 

The Father Of Roses In Buda – Afterlife: The Tomb Of Gul Baba (Ottoman Hungary #1)

You have to really take your turban off to Gul Baba. For a man who spent only a small part of his life in Buda he sure has staying power there. For nearly five centuries his tomb has retained a place among the city’s attractions. Despite sweeping changes in empires, rulers, religions and ideologies the tomb remains. Known as “The Father of Roses”, legend has it that Gul Baba was the first to introduce roses to the area. Not by coincidence the tomb is located in the 2nd District (Roszadomb – Hill of Roses) about a thousand feet west of the Danube in Buda. It is one of a very select few Ottoman Turkish sites left in Buda today.

The cobbled way up Gul Baba utca in Rozsadomb

The cobbled way up Gul Baba utca in Rozsadomb (Credit: Dguendel)

Getting to the site requires a steep climb up the cobbled, broken Gul Baba utca followed by a short walk along Turban utca. Suddenly and quite improbably the visitor arrives at the tomb. To find the shrine of an Ottoman Bektshi Dervish tucked within the quiet back streets of the Hungarian capital is surprising to say the least. On a visit to the tomb, I got the distinct feeling that I was in Anatolia rather than Eastern Europe. The Orient felt very near. Such a fascinating slice of eastern exotica left me with questions. Just who was Gul Baba and why does he still have a presence in a city that is two thousand kilometers from his birthplace? From what I discovered Gul Baba exerted a powerful spiritual influence. Much the same effect can be felt by those who visit his tomb today.

A Sultan’s Spiritual Sage – The Rise Of Gul Baba
Gul Baba died in the Carpathian Basin, but his life began far, far away on a plain in northern Anatolia. He was born sometime in the late 15th century at the fortified trading city of Merzifon. He would eventually make his way to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul where he would come to the attention of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Legend has it that Suleiman came upon him while hunting. At the time Gul Baba was tending and praying for roses he had planted. He certainly made a lasting impression on the Sultan as he had on many others. Gul Baba was a member of an Islamic movement known as the Bektashi dervish order that flourished throughout the Ottoman Empire. They practiced Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. In the Bektashi order, baba denotes an experienced spiritual guide. A baba ranks above a dervish and one below the highest rank in the order. The order was closely affiliated with the Sultan’s Janissary corps, elite infantrymen who were the heart and soul of the Ottoman war machine.

Statue of Gul Baba outside his tomb in Buda

Statue of Gul Baba outside his tomb in Buda (Credit: Thaler)

Gul Baba became a close companion of Suleiman, offering him spiritual guidance during his many military campaigns. He was also a warrior, known to carry a large wooden sword in his hand during battle. He was with Suleiman when the Ottoman Turks occupied Buda. Gul Baba was going to start a religious center in the city, but he suddenly died. The death of Gul Baba, like so much of his life, is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. Two possible dates are given for his death. The first, August 21, 1541, also happens to be the final day of the siege of Buda, when the Habsburg army was finally defeated after three and half months. Gul Baba may have perished in the fighting below the city walls. The second and more common date of death given is ten days later on September 1st. In this case Gul Baba is said to have collapsed and died after giving the first prayer during a Muslim ceremony held in the Church of Our Lady (current Matthias Church), which had instantly been converted into the Great Mosque. The funeral that followed shows Gul Baba’s popularity, likely stimulated from the great emotion felt by the Sultan. It is said that thousands took part, with Suleiman himself acting as one of the pall bearers.

Restoration & Resurrection – A Spiritual Revival
Suleiman’s affinity for this holy warrior and deeply spiritual figure likely had much to do with Gul Baba becoming the Patron Saint of Ottoman Buda. He was memorialized for the sake of posterity when his tomb was constructed from 1543-48 on orders of the third pasha of Buda. It was to become a holy shrine with a dervish cloister and a site of pilgrimage for the Bektashi order during Ottoman rule in Hungary. The tomb survived the retaking of Buda by the Habsburgs in 1686, but afterwards was converted to a Jesuit chapel. Only after the Jesuit Order was dissolved did the tomb start to be restored through local efforts. A landowner, Janos Wagner, allowed Muslim pilgrims access to the site. The first of two major restorations by the Turkish government took place in the late 19th century. Another restoration was done at the end of the 20th century, giving the complex its current form. The area around the tomb includes a colonnade, decorative fountains and gardens planted with roses. There is also a statue of Gul Baba. The tomb itself is located in a hexagonal shaped building, made from limestone and mounted with a gold crescent.

The casket of Gil Baba

The casket of Gil Baba (Credit: Thaler)

The day I visited the tomb there was only a single family of Turks at the site. The eldest of which was a grandmotherly type who was overcome with emotion during their visit. She spent many minutes deep in prayer as her family looked on. All around the tomb’s interior, the walls contained tiles with verses from the Koran. Gul Baba’s coffin was of traditional Ottoman design, covered with Oriental carpets featuring elaborate patterns. I marveled at the lady’s devotion. To travel all the way from Turkey into the heart of Europe, just to visit this obscure site made a great impression upon me. The tomb of Gul Baba is the most far flung pilgrimage site for Muslims in Europe. The opportunity to see the tomb and pray on-site must have been a lifelong dream for this lady. I had no way of communicating with her through language, but her expressive emotion told me all I really needed to know. Gul Baba was more than just a historical personage, he was that rarest of Holy Men, one whose mysterious power could speak across the ages, both to believer and observer.