Taking a Turkish Bath

One of the coolest things about traveling is the ability to touch base with the past and slip into ancient traditions. For World Hum writer Tony Perrottet dipping into history meant slipping off his clothes in public. He talks about taking his first trip to a bath house in his article The Joy of Steam.

Two thousand years ago, if you were visiting any city in the Roman Empire, you would be woken by the melodious bass of a copper gong resounding through the streets at dawn, announcing the opening of the thermae, or heated public baths — a sound, Cicero rhapsodized, that was sweeter than the voices of all the philosophers in Athens. These ancient baths were far more than mere palaces of cleanliness: They were the Western world’s first true entertainment complexes, combining the facilities of modern gyms, massage parlors, restaurants, community centers and tourist information offices.

They were the ideal place to meet locals or get hot travel tips: In those palatial halls, citizens of all classes lolled by the pools, met their friends, played ball games, relaxed, flirted, drank wine and even had elegant candle-lit dinners. And like nightclubs or gyms today, a city’s baths were unofficially graded: Some were chic, others déclassé; some were expensive, others cost only a copper; some were magnificently designed, as large as cathedrals, decorated with enormous mosaics of Neptune and his dolphins.

Visiting Istanbul was obviously my big chance to experience this ancient travelers’ tradition. Still, I found myself delaying: The embarrassing fact was, I’d never had a massage, let alone visited an actual bath house back home in New York. But we grabbed our towels and headed off valiantly into the night, on a modest expedition into the damp underbelly of antiquity.