Even after countless visits to Budapest, the capital of Hungary, and living there for a year from August 2000 to June 2001, I have no difficulty finding something new to explore. On this visit, I set out to explore Ottoman Budapest: the history of the city’s Turkish occupation and its remnants.
Hungary under the crescent moon
The Kingdom of Hungary was part of the Ottoman empire from 1526 (Battle of Mohács) to 1699 (Treaty of Karlowitz/Karlovac/Karlóca). Buda and Pest, until the merger in 1873 independent cities on Danube’s opposite banks, fell into Turkish hands in 1541 and were recaptured in 1686. In the 145 years of occupation, the Pashas of Buda built 29 djamis (large mosques), 52 smaller mosques and türbes (tombs), and 75 hammams and ilidjas (baths). Buda being the bigger, more important settlement that boasted a castle, which the Ottomans themselves reinforced, provided most of the sites for this construction.
Very little of Ottoman architecture remains. After the return of Buda and Pest to Hungarian hands, most of the Turkish buildings disappeared through demolition and subsequent construction. The survivors offer a fascinating glimpse into Hungary’s history and her national spirit. Welcome to Ottoman Budapest!
Ottoman Budapest: Hammams and ilidjas
Buda boasts 118 thermal springs and 15 public thermals baths, the reason behind Budapest’s nickname the City of Spas. Already the Romans, beginning in the 1st century AD, built some 21 baths in and around their Aquincum settlement, which can still be seen in Óbuda.
Hungarian kings and queens built baths as early as the 12th century. The first thermal bath by Buda springs was built by King Sigismund of Luxemburg in the second half of the 15th century.
The Turks took advantage of the springs too, building ilidjas, medicinal baths, and hammams, steam baths. They served three functions: religious, as the Quran emphasizes personal cleanliness; social, as the baths served as meeting and discussion spots; and medicinal due to the thermal waters’ curative effects.
The bath culture continued to thrive through Enlightenment, Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and independent Hungary.
Four baths with original Ottoman buildings remain: Király (historically, Kakaskapu/Rooster Gate Bath), Rudas (Jesli Direkli/Green Post), Császár (Veli Bej), and Rácz (Debbagháne Ibidzsaszi/Bath of Tanners). Lukács Bath was also built by the Turks but in modern times it has only been in use since the 19th century.
On our week-long visit to Budapest at the end of August 2013, Lindsay and I visited two oldest Turkish baths.
Ottoman Budapest: Király Gyógyfürdő (King’s Bath)
The entrance to Király Bath at Fő Street 84 is below street level through a classicist, 18th century addition built by the König family, from whom the baths take its name (the German könig is the Hungarian király is the English king). We planned to spend a couple of morning hours there to take advantage of the discounted entrance (1,200 forints/$5.25 if you’re in and out between 9 am and noon, HUF2,400/$10.50 all day, 9 am to 9 pm).
Up a spiral staircase and through a turnstile we entered a maze of changing cabins, with a vintage, 1950’s health facility feel. An attendant in her 60’s dressed in all white unlocked an available cabin. Since I used my broken Hungarian to do the talking, she handed me an aluminum token, hanging from a string of old sheet cloth. With a chalk she wrote the number embossed on the token onto a chalkboard rectangle on the inside of the cabin door and explained that she would only let us in afterward if we told her both the stall number and showed the security token, whose number had to match the chalked one.
Down a long hallway and another spiral staircase we entered the shower anteroom. In an instant, I realized this was going to be a cultural experience in sharp contrast to the world outside. In the dim yellow light, geriatric patrons shuffled in and out of headless showers. The brown stone walls breathed history and humidity. Past the first, 26°C pool, we finally entered the main bath area.
The construction of Király bath began in 1565 under Arslan the Pasha of Buda and was finished during the reign of Sokollu Mustafa who also built the Rudas bath. It was known as the Rooster Gate Bath or the Bath Made of Planks.
The building follows the traditional Turkish bath design: the main, 36°C or body-temperature octogonal pool sits under a round dome supported by eight arches, two of which house additional tiny 32°C and 40°C pools. Off to the side are dry sauna and steam rooms. As I sat in different pools and rooms, alternating between cool and warm and hot temperatures, I imagined the pores of my skin opening and closing and toxins being released and washed away from my body.
Arslan Pasha located the bath within the castle walls so that it could be used during sieges. However, it didn’t have its own spring so water was and continues to be supplied by the Lukács Bath. The fragrance from the water’s mineral content lingered in my nose through the entire stay.
After changing hands a few times, the König family acquired the bath in 1796 and rebuilt it to the current form. The most recent restoration took place to repair the damage from World War II in 1950-1959. It showed: not only did the place manifest general decrepitude, it seemed as though mornings were reserved for customers who reached adulthood during that last renovation.
We arrived at around 10 am and, until the younger tourist crowd started showing up close to noon, were the youngest people in the room. Elderly men, a majority of the patrons, chatted or sat around enjoying the heat. Matrons massaged their shoulders and backs with water gushing out of a large spout refilling the pool.
The run-down feel aside, I enjoyed the two-hour experience. Steam swirled in the cones of light seeping through round holes in the half-dome cupola. Mineral deposit condensed over the years seemed to stream from each hole like black tears. It was the cheapest, easiest trip through the centuries possible.
Ottoman Budapest: Rudas Gyógyfürdő és Uszoda (Rudas Bath and Swimming Pool)
We decided to take advantage of Rudas Bath‘s night bathing: on Fridays and Saturdays, you can soak or swim from 10 pm to 4 am, for an elevated price of HUF3,600/$15.75 (the regular weekend price is HUF3,200/$14.00; weekdays are HUF 2,900/$12.70).
Rudas Bath is better known, bigger, in much better shape and hence more touristy than Király, so we thought night bathing would be a way to avoid heavy traffic. But to our momentary dismay, as soon as 10 pm hit, two tour buses, one full of teenagers, the other of under-thirties, pulled up at the entrance, adding to about two-dozen people already waiting with us to be let in.
Luckily, the speed tourists ended up staying only about 45 minutes, jetting between the Bath’s six pools, three sauna rooms, and two steam rooms. By midnight we were used to the commotion, and the place had quieted down anyway.
Located at Döbrentei tér 9 on a narrow strip of land between the Danube River and the Gellért Hill, Rudas Bath has much nicer, newer facilities and is better equipped to serve non-Hungarian speakers than Király. The changing cabin attendant even switched between Russian and English to tease a Russian woman about the slowness of the cabin number assignment machine, saying it’s so slow because it’s made in Russia.
After the ‘modern’ pre-bathing shower, the main Turkish bath area is nothing short of spectacular. As I passed through a narrow archway, I entered a different era—my search for Ottoman Budapest reached its climax.
Even with the young crowd milling around and the chatter and laughter echoing in the cavernous space, it was easy to forget the outside world and immerse myself in the healing waters and history. I closed my eyes and bobbed in the hot and warm and cool and hot water, lulling my senses. The noise bounced off a bubble I conjured around me, and there were moments when I only heard the splashing of water reverberating through the room. The air, fragrant with minerals, traveled through the present time and through me. The dome overhead seemed like a giant, dark sieve looking down five centuries of water. Magic.
The construction of Rudas began in 1556 under Ali Pasha, continued under Muhamad Pasha, and was extended and completed under Sokullu Mustafa in 1571. A plaque on a stone standing atop the Juve spring inside the main pool room commemorates Sokollu Mustafa’s use of the Bath between 1566 and 1578. The Turks called it the Bath with a Green Post. Following Turkish traditions, until the 20th century Rudas was exclusively for men only. Today men-only days are all weekdays except the women-only Tuesdays; nights and weekends are coed. The swimming pool, which we didn’t visit, was built in 1896.
The octagonal 36°C pool is about a third larger than Király’s; the eight arches, connected by metal reinforcing rods, are burlier and support a much bigger dotted cupola, though no light came through from the night sky.
The water spout is placed in carved stone that from different angles looks like a female loin, a sea shell, a frog, or a flower. Four pools in the corners, 28°C, 30°C, 33°C, and 42°C (a 16°C dunk pool is around the corner as you exit), complement the body-temperature main pool so you can soak in the healing waters to your delight (as at Király, the slightly radioactive mineral water’s indications are degenerative joint diseases, chronic and sub-acute arthritis, discus hernia, spinal deformity, neuralgia, and post-accident rehabilitation).
Through separate pointed-curve arched entryways you access the two steam rooms, whose heat was overwhelming for me so late in the day, and three dry sauna rooms with increasing temperatures, from 45°C to 55-60°C to 75-80°C. For 2.5 hours, we moved from pool to pool, detouring to the sauna, alternating temperatures and sensations.
Before we left the building to catch the night bus home, we celebrated the experience at the Rudas bar, located in the vestibule between the bath and swimming pool buildings, with smooth shots of apple and pear brandy.