An ancestor of mine, Henry Morse Olmsted, while traveling through Egypt from China in 1852, left a record that includes his descriptions of a donkey ride to the pyramids and that evening in Cairo when he had his first Turkish Bath. It is difficult to say which experience made the greater impression, but he certainly dedicated more lines to the towels than the tombs in this letter to an associate in China, dated January 8th 1852.
"We reached our hotel at 5, & after disencumbering ourselves of watches & purses we started for a Turkish Bath, and here I confess myself utterly incompetent to describe upon the luxury thereof. Most descriptions which I have read impressed one with the belief that I should be rather disgusted than pleased, but on the contrary, I was delighted beyond measure. We were rather late, and therefore somewhat hurried through the operation.
You enter thro the street thro a narrow passage til you find yourself in an apartment of good size with marble floor, fountain in the centre, and surmounted on three sides with a high & wide divan covered with carpets, cushions etc. A large white cloth is immediately spread on this divan and putting off your shoes you mount thereon and an attendant commences disrobing you. Another stands by with a pile of cloths on his head and hanging from his arms and the instant you jerk off your last shirt, a waistcloth descending to the knees is wrapped around you, another over the shoulders, arms and breast, and a turban is wrapped in voluminous folds around your head. Slippers are put on your feet and you are lead to the Bath -
This is a large room in the centre of which are marble, circular seat. In a side alcove the Bath tub into which hot water is falling from an elevation of three or four feet. This room is heated by vapours. Your clothes (except the decency cloth) are stripped off and you are left to vapourize for a few minutes. Then you are lead to the tub, into which you enter in nature's dress (which you know Tom Moor says is loveliness) . Here you will soak & boil til a big Turk or Arab with a hair cloth glove seizes on you, & placing you on the tub side, which is a wide slab, commences rubbing at you til the coating of dirt and dust is peeled off like the skin off a fig. You are again lowered into the water, again soak, & again are summonned on to the slab to be soaped.
Hair, eyes, ears, beard & body generally are soon covered over in a soft & delicious lather. You are gently rubbed and cleansed, again lowered into the tub - this last's the rinsing. You are taken out and quick as thought again find yourself in a Turban & wrapped around with many folds of soft & clean & big towels. You are hurried into another room, are put before a luxurious divan, another cloth is put under you, one over the feet and legs, and then the drying begins.
You are not rubbed, as with us, by a bit of hard cloth, 3 feet by 2, but you find yourself a sort of mummy. You are encompassed with soft, dry cloths, and the attendant gently rubs you, gently pats you, gently kneads you & ends all by cracking your fingers, twisting your body, and by some peculiar movement embracing you from behind, cracks every joint in your body from the waist up. This continues for five or ten minutes, when you are thoroughly dried. Coffee and pipes are brought. Your clothes are brought. At your leisure you dress, & mounting your donkey ride home to dinner or breakfast as the case may be.
The Turks and Arabs are all bathing together, but Europeans can always by sending word have the Bath kept for them. My friend & I not being over squeamish bundled into the big tub together. As the apartments were lighted by a dim religious light, we saw nothing to be shocked at. Decency is in no way outraged. In Russia where the same baths are used, bathers can have young female attendant to rub, wash and dry them, but this I think highly improper. The voluptuous Turk even does nothing so indecorous.
Don't let anyone convince you that a Turkish Bath is not fine & on the homeward trip fail not to try one - I mean to have one more at least before I leave the land of the East."
To modern frequenters of spas and chiropractors, the experience of my ancestor may not seem as exotic now as it was to him and to the vast majority of Americans in his day. It must have been absolute heaven to Henry Olmsted after a hot dusty ride out to Giza and back on a donkey.