The American man of letters Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) was one of many travelers to the Near East of his time. His tour in 1853 resulted in a travel account above the common lot of Holy Land roller overs. Of particular interest is his frank account of a Turkish bath in Damascus.

“The Bath is the ‘peculiar institution’ of the East. Coffee has become colonized in France and America; the Pipe is a cosmopolite, and his blue, joyous breath congeals under the Arctic Circle, or melts languidly into the soft airs of the Polynesian Isles; but the Bath, that sensuous elysium which cradled the dreams of Plato, and the visions of Zoroaster, and the solemn meditations of Mahomet, is only to be found under an Oriental sky. The naked natives of the Torrid Zone are amphibious; they do not bathe, they live in the water. The European and Anglo-American wash themselves and think they have bathed; they shudder under cold showers and perform laborious antics with coarse towels. As for the Hydropathist, the Genius of the Bath, whose dwelling is in Damascus, would be convulsed with scornful laughter, could he behold that aqueous Diogenes sitting in his tub, or stretched out in his wet wrappings, like a sodden mummy, in a catacomb of blankets and feather beds. As the rose in the East has a rarer perfume than in other lands, so does the Bath bestow a superior purification and impart a more profound enjoyment…

“Come with me, and I will show you the mysteries of the perfect bath. Here is the entrance, a heavy Saracenic arch, opening upon the crowded bazaar. We descend a few steps to the marble pavement of a lofty octagonal hall, lighted by a dome. There is a jet of sparkling water in the centre, falling into a heavy stone basin. A platform about five feet in height runs around the hall, and on this are ranged a number of narrow couches, with their heads to the wall, like the pallets in a hospital ward. The platform is covered with straw matting, and from the wooden gallery which rises above it are suspended towels, with blue and crimson borders. The master of the bath receives us courteously, and conducts us to one of the vacant couches. We kick off our red slippers below, and mount the steps to the platform. Yonder traveller, in Frank dress, who has just entered, goes up with his boots on, and we know, from that fact, what sort of a bath he will get.

“As the work of disrobing proceeds, a dark-eyed boy appears with a napkin, which he holds before us, ready to bind it about the waist, as soon as we regain our primitive form. Another attendant throws a napkin over our shoulders and wraps a third around our head, turban-wise. He then thrusts a pair of wooden clogs upon our feet, and, taking us by the arm, steadies our tottering and clattering steps, as we pass through a low door and a warm ante-chamber into the first hall of the bath. The light, falling dimly through a cluster of bull’s-eyes in the domed ceiling, shows, first, a silver thread of water, playing in a steamy atmosphere; next, some dark motionless objects, stretched out on a low central platform of marble. The attendant spreads a linen sheet in one of the vacant places, places a pillow at one end, takes off our clogs, deposits us gently on our back, and leaves us. The pavement is warm beneath us, and the first breath we draw gives us a sense of suffocation. But a bit of burning aloe-wood has just been carried through the hall, and the steam is permeated with fragrance. The dark-eyed boy appears with a narghileh, which he places beside us, offering the amber mouth-piece to our submissive lips. The smoke we inhale has an odor of roses; and as the pipe bubbles with our breathing, we feel that the dews of sweat gather heavily upon us. The attendant now reappears, kneels beside us, and gently kneads us with dexterous hands. Although no anatomist, he knows every muscle and sinew whose suppleness gives ease to the body, and so moulds and manipulates them that we lose the rigidity of our mechanism, and become plastic in his hands. He turns us upon our face, repeats the same process upon the back, and leaves us a little longer to lie there passively, glistening in our own dew.

“We are aroused from a reverie about nothing by a dark-brown shape, who replaces the clogs, puts his arm around our waist and leads us into an inner hall, with a steaming tank in the centre. Here he slips us off the brink, and we collapse over head and ears in the fiery fluid. Once–twice- we dip into the delicious heat, and then are led into a marble alcove, and seated flat upon the floor. The attendant stands behind us, and we now perceive that his hands are encased in dark hair-gloves. He pounces upon an arm, which he rubs until, like a serpent, we slough the worn-out skin, and resume our infantile smoothness and fairness. No man can be called clean until he has bathed in the East. Let him walk directly from his accustomed bath and self-friction with towels, to the Hammam el-Khyateen, and the attendant will exclaim, as he shakes out his hair-gloves: “O Frank! it is a long time since you have bathed.” The other arm follows, the back, the breast, the legs, until the work is complete, and we know precisely how a horse feels after he has been curried.

“Now the attendant turns two cocks at the back of the alcove, and holding a basin alternately under the cold and hot streams, floods us at first with a fiery dash, that sends a delicious warm shiver through every nerve; then, with milder applications, lessening the temperature of the water by semi-tones, until, from the highest key of heat which we can bear, we glide rapturously down the gamut until we reach the lowest bass of coolness. The skin has by this time attained an exquisite sensibility, and answers to these changes of temperature with thrills of the purest physical pleasure. In fact, the whole frame seems purged of its earthy nature and transformed into something of a finer and more delicate texture.

“After a pause, the attendant makes his appearance with a large wooden bowl, a piece of soap, and a bunch of palm-fibres. He squats down beside the bowl, and speedily creates a mass of snowy lather, which grows up to a pyramid and topples over the edge. Seizing us by the crown-tuft of hair upon our shaven head, he plants the foamy bunch of fibres full in our face. The world vanishes; sight, hearing, smell, taste (unless we open our mouth), and breathing, are cut off; we have become nebulous. Although our eyes are shut, we seem to see a blank whiteness; and, feeling nothing but a soft fleeciness, we doubt whether we be not the Olympian cloud which visited lo. But the cloud clears away before strangulation begins, and the velvety mass descends upon the body. Twice we are thus ‘slushed’ from head to foot, and made more slippery than the anointed wrestlers of the Greek games. Then the basin comes again into play, and we glide once more musically through the scale of temperature.

“The brown sculptor has now nearly completed his task. The figure of clay which entered the bath is transformed into polished marble. He turns the body from side to side, and lifts the limbs to see whether the workmanship is adequate to his conception. His satisfied gaze proclaims his success. A skilful bath-attendant has a certain aesthetic pleasure in his occupation. The bodies he polishes become to some extent his own workmanship, and he feels responsible for their symmetry or deformity. He experiences a degree of triumph in contemplating a beautiful form, which has grown more airily light and beautiful under his hands. He is a great connoisseur of bodies, and could pick you out the finest specimens with as ready an eye as an artist.”

Excerpted from Bayard Taylor, THE LANDS OF THE SARACEN or, Pictures of Palestine, Asia Minor, Sicily, and Spain. Twentieth Edition. 1863, Original, 1854.

[Tabsir Redux is a reposting of earlier posts on the blog, since memories are fickle and some things deserve a second viewing.]