Turkish Baths in Budapest are inviting you to soak in the steaming water, relax and marvel at the mysteriously lit domes with half closed eyes. Just recall that engulfing feeling when you dissolve in your home tub after a tiring day.
Now multiply it with the strange radiation of medieval centuries and a sense of freedom holidays give you (plus the bigger bath and extras, of course). If you like relaxing in water, Budapest, the City of Spas is a must have on your travel list. Just remember, Turkish baths in Hungary are quite different from Turkish baths in Turkey: no people with buckets of water and bubble baths sitting on marble slabs, no harsh rubbing massages. Instead, the focus is on the water, and smoother massages.
Currently the only Turkish bath in Budapest that is also part of a spa hotel is Rac Bath, which still has not opened its gates, although the bath complex and the luxury hotel is ready to be used, completely finished, but losing millions each month due to legal issues. Until they sort out the legal mess, here is a list of Budapest spa hotels.
Most tourists will know the non-Turkish Szechenyi Baths and Gellert Baths, the two most popular & family-friendly spa baths in Budapest. In Szechenyi bath you don’t need to check if the bath is for men or for women only. But if you want to make your spa experience culturally spicy, and architecturally unique, try one of the few Turkish baths in Budapest, which were built in the 16th-17th century – and are still functioning.
Budapest Turkish Baths
In Budapest, you will find the following Turkish baths:
- Rudas Furdo/ Rudas Bath built in 1550. Turkish name: Jesil direkli iligesi
- Kiraly Furdo/ Kiraly Baths) built in 1565. Turkish name: Horoz kapi iligesi
- Rác Furdo/ Rac Bath built in the 16th century on the previously flourishing bath used by Hungarian kings (King Matthias accessed the bath from his palace through a direct corridor). It is to re-open in about 2009 (coming complete with a luxurious hotel & a deep garage, plus expanded with an elevator to the Citadel). Turkish name: Debagghane/ Kücük iligesi
- Csaszar Furdo/ Emperor Spa Bath, now known as Veli Bej Bath after its Turkish equivalent built in the 16th century. It’s the odd one out as the bath is closed for the general public (is owned by the Order of Hospitallers). The spa bath is originally from the Roman times. It was one of the most lavishly built baths, directly connected with corridors to the monastery of dervishes. Turkish name: Veli bej iliges
Not all existing baths were used by the Ottoman Turks as Turkish baths: most notably, Lukács Spa Bath was used “to produce gunpowder and for grinding wheat.” Although Lukács bath was founded in the 12th century by the Knights of St. John.
See Budapest Spa Baths (including the Turkish baths) in the Budapest Tourist Map (blue wave sign):
But let’s have a look at the history of Turkish baths in Budapest, Hungary.
Why are there Turkish Baths in Hungary at all?
No, not out of free will or economic consideration, nor out of fad like in Victorian England. The truth is that Hungary did not want to have Turkish baths at all – especially not in the 16th century, when the ‘Muslim Turkish meant a great threat to the Christian Europe’. But as the Hungarian armies led by King Louis II were defeated by the Turks led by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in a very decisive battle at Mohács in 1526, the Ottoman Turkish took over (the remainder of) Hungary. (I mean remainder as the previous Hungarian Kingdom was divided into 3 big chunks, one for the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy, one for Sultan Suleiman and one for the autonomous princes of Transylvania).
During the 150 years of Ottoman Turkish rule (from 1526 to 1699), more and more Turkish people (janissary, dervish, pasha, etc.) settled down in Hungary, so more and more Turkish baths were needed as part of the everyday social and religious life. Some of the Turkish baths were built on former baths built by the Romans (mixing the steam-based Turkish with the water-based Roman style), while others were made from scratch. The Turks have built at least 40 spa baths (or hamam) on the medicinal water springs they have found in Hungary. In his Seyahatname (Book of Travels), Evliya Çelebi Turkish traveler mentions 70 baths of 42 places, but as far as we know today, his work is to taken with a pinch of salt.
Building Turkish Baths was an excellent financial investment for the Turkish aristocracy as there was a steadily growing market demand for hygienic Turkish baths in the 1550’s. In addition, building a bath was a good deed that increased the believer’s chances to get a good final judgment. Over time, not only Turkish but many other (Christian and Jewish) residents frequented these baths. Hungarian historians don’t fail to point out that Hungary benefited from the Turkish occupation through taking over its widespread bathing culture, and in fact learning everyday hygienics, which was not very well observed in Europe in the middle ages. But it’s equally important to point out that it was not the Ottoman Turks who brought baths as a novelty in the conquered Hungarian kingdom: the first findings of baths go back to the Celtics, then to the Roman Emperor Claudius (relief saying “aquae calidae superiores et inferiores” i.e. “better and worse warm waters”), then to the 12th century, etc.
According to Katalin Kéri Dr., “men, women and children filled the baths of the Islamic empire in those centuries when in the medieval Europe little care was paid to personal hygiene.” Ritual bathing, at least once a week, also meant that the world made by Allah is taken care of, including your own body, beauty and health. Beauty and health reflected the creator’s perfection. And as everything is related, the Ottoman Turkish placed special emphasis on the individual responsibility for preserving one’s own health. The number of baths was an indicator of the richness of a city. But these numbers were many times exaggerated (e.g. Baghdad in the 9-10th century was said to have had between 60,000 and 200,000 Turkish baths…).
The most entrepreneurial Turkish bath-builder was the Bosnian Sokollu Mehmet Pasha who alone had 16 Turkish baths built in Hungary. The beautiful baths in Buda bear the Turkish architectural features: the central dome studded with small eyelet windows, niches with fountains, etc. After the Turkish rule of 150 years, most steam baths (e.g. in Siklós, Pécs, Szeged, Tata, etc.) were turned into churches, schools, saltpeter-makers, and so on. In contrast, several thermal baths remained functional as baths for many many years.
Fast forward to the 21st century: four of the Turkish baths were well preserved, and in the last couple of years considerable investments have been made to reconstruct and even expand them.
Turkish travelogues as sources
Besides architectural features, historical Ottoman administrative documents, and Christian travelogues (e.g. the Tzech Vratislav Vencel or Auer Ferdinand from Bratislava) researchers have used several old travelogues written by Turkish travelers: e.g.
Menázir’l-aválim made by Âşık Mehmet bin Háfiz Ömer er-rúmí (?-1598),
Tergüme-i Coğrafya-ı Kebîr made by Ebu Bekir bin Behram ed-Dimiscinec (?-1690/1691)
manuscript of Süleymâniye Kütüphânesi
Seyahatname (Book of Travels) made by Evliya Çelebi
The biography of Sokollu Mustafa made by anonymous author in 1591 in Buda
Sources: (in Hungarian) Terebess: The history of Turkish baths in Hungary