A letter from Constantinople



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Victorian Turkish Baths: their origin, development, and gradual decline


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Armand Temple Powlett describes his first visit to a Turkish bath

A number of well-known authors, as well as some of  those involved in setting up Turkish baths in the British Isles, had visited a hammam in Turkey or in the Maghreb. The descriptions they wrote were frequently either flowery, revelling in the exotic, or humorous, concentrating on features of the bathing process calculated to raise a smile if sufficiently exaggerated. In total contrast, the letter which follows, was written in 1855 to his father, by Armand Temple Powlett, a young lad based in Turkey at the time of the Crimean War.

A 19th century artist's view of the inside of the famous Cagaloglu Hammam in Constantinople (Istanbul). We do not know which hammam is being described in the letter, but it seems likely that a young man might go to a smaller, and perhaps less expensive, hammam than this.

The whole of the letter, one of a collection in the Powlett Papers, describes his first visit to a Turkish bath in simple unsophisticated language which is neither designed to make converts nor poke fun at customs unfamiliar to the intended reader.

28 Jan

My dear Papa

I beg a thousand pardons for not thanking you before
for yr letter, but I had so many to write to other members of the
family. I will describe a Turkish bath to you. First you
enter a large hall full of Turks lying under canopies. They
have had n  just had their baths and are drying. In you go
up into the gallery and undress, they rap [sic] a towel round your
middle and throw another over your shoulders, then you go
down again, and boys bring you pattens to wear over the hot
marble these lead you into a still hotter room, where they take the
towels off, but this is not the bath, you then go into the bath
room where the heat nearly suffocates you. You see no water,
like an English bath, you hear a great noise which is the Turks
bellowing for Mahomed. There is a part raised like a terrace
were [sic] you lie and get scrubbed. Then you go into a ring
where there are three marble vases over which is a hot and cold water
tap. You can therefore have the water as hot or cold as you like,
also there is a copper saucer with which you throw the water over.
yrself. All this time you are in a heavy perspiration and feel
disposed to go to sleep. The boys then come and rub you with
horse hair rubbers which clean you most effectually They then bring
things made  of sheeps wool which they soap and soap you all over,
then they leave you to yourself.

I amused myself with throwing water over Seymour and rolling
on the warm marble. Then went out and had dry towels rapped
round our head like a turban and lay under a canopy and
drunk coffee and lemonade and those who liked smoking take their
Chibouge, until they are dry and then dress, and go to the
door and pay 2/6  we found our horses waiting for us it was poor
work for we cd not get a clear path for gallop the streets are
so narrow and crowded.

        Ever yr affec A.T.P.



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Cagaloglu interior 19th century

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