Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a prominent English – Oh, c’mon, it’s the awesome Lady Montagu! Writer, poet, traveler, free spirit, smallpox inoculation advocate. I was skimming through her book Letters Of The Right Honourable Lady M–Y W—Y M—-E: Written During Her Travels In Europe, Asia And Africa on an antique books website when the words “Turkish” and “hot baths” leaped off the screen.
Yeah, I’m going there in this post.
I couldn’t find many images of women by Turkish artists from the 1700s. So, I’ve used some stunning paintings by Swiss painter Jean-Étienne Liotard, who was enamored of Turkey. He painted this post’s feature image of Lady Montagu in Turkish attire.
Adrianople, April 1. O. S. 1717.
I am now got into a new world, where everything I see appears to me a change of scene; and I write to your ladyship with some content of mind, hoping, at least, that you will find the charms of novelty in my letters, and no longer reproach me, that I tell you nothing extraordinary. I won’t trouble you with a relation of our tedious journey; but must not omit what I saw remarkable at Sophia, one of the most beautiful towns in the Turkish empire, and famous for its hot baths, that are resorted to both for diversion and health. I stopped here one day, on purpose to see them; and, designing to go incognito, I hired a Turkish coach. These voitures are not at all like ours, but much more convenient for the country, the heat being so great, that glasses would be very troublesome. They are made a good deal in the manner of the Dutch stage-coaches, having wooden lattices painted and gilded; the inside being also painted with baskets and nosegays of flowers, intermixed commonly with little poetical mottos. They are covered all over with scarlet cloth, lined with silk, and very often richly embroidered and fringed. This covering entirely hides the persons in them, but may be thrown back at pleasure, and thus permits the ladies to peep through the lattices. They hold four people very conveniently, seated on cushions, but not raised.
In one of these covered waggons, I went to the bagnio about ten o’clock. It was already full of women. It is built of stone, in the shape of a dome, with no windows but in the roof, which gives light enough. There were five of these domes joined together, the outmost being less than the rest, and serving only as a hall, where the portress stood at the door. Ladies of quality generally give this woman a crown or ten shillings; and I did not forget that ceremony. The next room is a very large one paved with marble, and all round it are two raised sofas of marble, one above another. There were four fountains of cold water in this room, falling first into marble basons, and then running on the floor in little channels made for that purpose, which carried the streams into the next room, something less than this, with the same sort of marble sofas, but so hot with steams of sulphur proceeding from the baths joining to it, ’twas impossible to stay there with one’s cloaths on. The two other domes were the hot baths, one of which had cocks of cold water turning into it, to temper it to what degree of warmth the bathers pleased to have.
I was in my travelling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them. Yet there was not one of them that shewed the least surprise or impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court, where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to such a stranger. I believe, upon the whole, there were two hundred women, and yet none of those disdainful smiles, and satirical whispers, that never fail in our assemblies, when any body appears that is not dressed exactly in the fashion. They repeated over and over to me; “UZELLE, PEK UZELLE,” which is nothing but, Charming, very Charming.
The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies; and on the second, their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed. Yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them. They walked and moved with the same majestic grace, which Milton describes our general mother with. There were many amongst them, as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess was drawn by the pencil of a Guido or Titian,—and most of their skins shiningly white, only adorned by their beautiful hair divided into many tresses, hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or ribbon, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces.
I was here convinced of the truth of a reflection I have often made, That if it were the fashion to go naked, the face would be hardly observed. I perceived, that the ladies of the most delicate skins and finest shapes had the greatest share of my admiration, though their faces were sometimes less beautiful than those of their companions. To tell you the truth, I had wickedness enough, to wish secretly, that Mr Gervais could have been there invisible. I fancy it would have very much improved his art, to see so many fine women naked, in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their cushions, while their slaves (generally pretty girls of seventeen or eighteen) were employed in braiding their hair in several pretty fancies. In short, ’tis the women’s coffee-house, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented, &c.
They generally take this diversion once a week, and stay there at least four or five hours, without getting cold by immediate coming out of the hot bath into the cold room, which was very surprising to me. The lady, that seemed the most considerable among them, entreated me to sit by her, and would fain have undressed me for the bath. I excused myself with some difficulty. They being however all so earnest in persuading me, I was at last forced to open my shirt, and shew them my stays; which satisfied them very well; for, I saw, they believed I was locked up in that machine, and that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband.
I was charmed with their civility and beauty, and should have been very glad to pass more time with them; but Mr W—— resolving to pursue his journey next morning early, I was in haste to see the ruins of Justinian’s church, which did not afford me so agreeable a prospect as I had left, being little more than a heap of stones.
Adieu, madam, I am sure I have now entertained you with an account of such a sight as you never saw in your life, and what no book of travels could inform you of, as ’tis no less than death for a man to be found in one of these places.