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Ch. 11: A Dissertation on Bathing and Bodies


"No swan-soft woman, rubbed with lucid oils,
The gift of an enamored god, more fair."

~Robert Browning.


We shall not set out from Damascus--we shall not leave the Pearl of the Orient to glimmer through the seas of foliage wherein it lies buried--without consecrating a day to the Bath, that material agent of peace and good-will unto men. We have bathed in the Jordan, like Naaman, and been made clean; let us now see whether Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, are better than the waters of Israel.

The Bath is the "peculiar institution" of the East. Coffee has become colonized in France and America; the Pipe is a cosmopolite, and his blue, joyous breath congeals under the Arctic Circle, or melts languidly into the soft airs of the Polynesian Isles; but the Bath, that sensuous elysium which cradled the dreams of Plato, and the visions of Zoroaster, and the solemn meditations of Mahomet, is only to be found under an Oriental sky. The naked natives of the Torrid Zone are amphibious; they do not bathe, they live in the water. The European and Anglo-American wash themselves and think they have bathed; they shudder under cold showers and perform laborious antics with coarse towels. As for the Hydropathist, the Genius of the Bath, whose dwelling is in Damascus, would be convulsed with scornful laughter, could he behold that aqueous Diogenes sitting in his tub, or stretched out in his wet wrappings, like a sodden mummy, in a catacomb of blankets and feather beds. As the rose in the East has a rarer perfume than in other lands, so does the Bath bestow a superior purification and impart a more profound enjoyment.

Listen not unto the lamentations of travellers, who complain of the heat, and the steam, and the dislocations of their joints. They belong to the stiff-necked generation, who resist the processes, whereunto the Oriental yields himself body and soul. He who is bathed in Damascus, must be as clay in the hands of a potter. The Syrians marvel how the Franks can walk, so difficult is it to bend their joints. Moreover, they know the difference between him who comes to the Bath out of a mere idle curiosity, and him who has tasted its delight and holds it in due honor. Only the latter is permitted to know all its mysteries. The former is carelessly hurried through the ordinary forms of bathing, and, if any trace of the cockney remain in him, is quite as likely to be disgusted as pleased. Again, there are many second and third-rate baths, whither cheating dragomen conduct their victims, in consideration of a division of spoils with the bath-keeper. Hence it is, that the Bath has received but partial justice at the hands of tourists in the East. If any one doubts this, let him clothe himself with Oriental passiveness and resignation, go to the Hamman el-KhyateŽn, at Damascus, or the Bath of Mahmoud Pasha, at Constantinople, and demand that he be perfectly bathed.

Come with me, and I will show you the mysteries of the perfect bath. Here is the entrance, a heavy Saracenic arch, opening upon the crowded bazaar. We descend a few steps to the marble pavement of a lofty octagonal hall, lighted by a dome. There is a jet of sparkling water in the centre, falling into a heavy stone basin. A platform about five feet in height runs around the hall, and on this are ranged a number of narrow couches, with their heads to the wall, like the pallets in a hospital ward. The platform is covered with straw matting, and from the wooden gallery which rises above it are suspended towels, with blue and crimson borders. The master of the bath receives us courteously, and conducts us to one of the vacant couches. We kick off our red slippers below, and mount the steps to the platform. Yonder traveller, in Frank dress, who has just entered, goes up with his boots on, and we know, from that fact, what sort of a bath he will get.

As the work of disrobing proceeds, a dark-eyed boy appears with a napkin, which he holds before us, ready to bind it about the waist, as soon as we regain our primitive form. Another attendant throws a napkin over our shoulders and wraps a third around our head, turban-wise. He then thrusts a pair of wooden clogs upon our feet, and, taking us by the arm, steadies our tottering and clattering steps, as we pass through a low door and a warm ante-chamber into the first hall of the bath. The light, falling dimly through a cluster of bull's-eyes in the domed ceiling, shows, first, a silver thread of water, playing in a steamy atmosphere; next, some dark motionless objects, stretched out on a low central platform of marble. The attendant spreads a linen sheet in one of the vacant places, places a pillow at one end, takes off our clogs, deposits us gently on our back, and leaves us. The pavement is warm beneath us, and the first breath we draw gives us a sense of suffocation. But a bit of burning aloe-wood has just been carried through the hall, and the steam is permeated with fragrance. The dark-eyed boy appears with a narghileh, which he places beside us, offering the amber mouth-piece to our submissive lips. The smoke we inhale has an odor of roses; and as the pipe bubbles with our breathing, we feel that the dews of sweat gather heavily upon us. The attendant now reappears, kneels beside us, and gently kneads us with dexterous hands. Although no anatomist, he knows every muscle and sinew whose suppleness gives ease to the body, and so moulds and manipulates them that we lose the rigidity of our mechanism, and become plastic in his hands. He turns us upon our face, repeats the same process upon the back, and leaves us a little longer to lie there passively, glistening in our own dew.

We are aroused from a reverie about nothing by a dark-brown shape, who replaces the clogs, puts his arm around our waist and leads us into an inner hall, with a steaming tank in the centre. Here he slips us off the brink, and we collapse over head and ears in the fiery fluid. Once--twice--we dip into the delicious heat, and then are led into a marble alcove, and seated flat upon the floor. The attendant stands behind us, and we now perceive that his hands are encased in dark hair-gloves. He pounces upon an arm, which he rubs until, like a serpent, we slough the worn-out skin, and resume our infantile smoothness and fairness. No man can be called clean until he has bathed in the East. Let him walk directly from his accustomed bath and self-friction with towels, to the Hammam el-KhyateŽn, and the attendant will exclaim, as he shakes out his hair-gloves: "O Frank! it is a long time since you have bathed." The other arm follows, the back, the breast, the legs, until the work is complete, and we know precisely how a horse feels after he has been curried.

Now the attendant turns two cocks at the back of the alcove, and holding a basin alternately under the cold and hot streams, floods us at first with a fiery dash, that sends a delicious warm shiver through every nerve; then, with milder applications, lessening the temperature of the water by semi-tones, until, from the highest key of heat which we can bear, we glide rapturously down the gamut until we reach the lowest bass of coolness. The skin has by this time attained an exquisite sensibility, and answers to these changes of temperature with thrills of the purest physical pleasure. In fact, the whole frame seems purged of its earthy nature and transformed into something of a finer and more delicate texture.

After a pause, the attendant makes his appearance with a large wooden bowl, a piece of soap, and a bunch of palm-fibres. He squats down beside the bowl, and speedily creates a mass of snowy lather, which grows up to a pyramid and topples over the edge. Seizing us by the crown-tuft of hair upon our shaven head, he plants the foamy bunch of fibres full in our face. The world vanishes; sight, hearing, smell, taste (unless we open our mouth), and breathing, are cut off; we have become nebulous. Although our eyes are shut, we seem to see a blank whiteness; and, feeling nothing but a soft fleeciness, we doubt whether we be not the Olympian cloud which visited lo. But the cloud clears away before strangulation begins, and the velvety mass descends upon the body. Twice we are thus "slushed" from head to foot, and made more slippery than the anointed wrestlers of the Greek games. Then the basin comes again into play, and we glide once more musically through the scale of temperature.

The brown sculptor has now nearly completed his task. The figure of clay which entered the bath is transformed into polished marble. He turns the body from side to side, and lifts the limbs to see whether the workmanship is adequate to his conception. His satisfied gaze proclaims his success. A skilful bath-attendant has a certain aesthetic pleasure in his occupation. The bodies he polishes become to some extent his own workmanship, and he feels responsible for their symmetry or deformity. He experiences a degree of triumph in contemplating a beautiful form, which has grown more airily light and beautiful under his hands. He is a great connoisseur of bodies, and could pick you out the finest specimens with as ready an eye as an artist.

I envy those old Greek bathers, into whose hands were delivered Pericles, and Alcibiades, and the perfect models of Phidias. They had daily before their eyes the highest types of Beauty which the world has ever produced; for of all things that are beautiful, the human body is the crown. Now, since the delusion of artists has been overthrown, and we know that Grecian Art is but the simple reflex of Nature--that the old masterpieces of sculpture were no miraculous embodiments of a beau ideal, but copies of living forms--we must admit that in no other age of the world has the physical Man been so perfectly developed. The nearest approach I have ever seen to the symmetry of ancient sculpture was among the Arab tribes of Ethiopia. Our Saxon race can supply the athlete, but not the Apollo.

Oriental life is too full of repose, and the Ottoman race has become too degenerate through indulgence, to exhibit many striking specimens of physical beauty. The face is generally fine, but the body is apt to be lank, and with imperfect muscular development. The best forms I saw in the baths were those of laborers, who, with a good deal of rugged strength, showed some grace and harmony of proportion. It may be received as a general rule, that the physical development of the European is superior to that of the Oriental, with the exception of the Circassians and Georgians, whose beauty well entitles them to the distinction of giving their name to our race.

So far as female beauty is concerned, the Circassian women have no superiors. They have preserved in their mountain home the purity of the Grecian models, and still display the perfect physical loveliness, whose type has descended to us in the Venus de Medici. The Frank who is addicted to wandering about the streets of Oriental cities can hardly fail to be favored with a sight of the faces of these beauties. More than once it has happened to me, in meeting a veiled lady, sailing along in her balloon-like feridjee, that she has allowed the veil to drop by a skilful accident, as she passed, and has startled me with the vision of her beauty, recalling the line of the Persian poet: "Astonishment! is this the dawn of the glorious sun, or is it the full moon?" The Circassian face is a pure oval; the forehead is low and fair, "an excellent thing in woman," and the skin of an ivory whiteness, except the faint pink of the cheeks and the ripe, roseate stain of the lips. The hair is dark, glossy, and luxuriant, exquisitely outlined on the temples; the eyebrows slightly arched, and drawn with a delicate pencil; while lashes like "rays of darkness" shade the large, dark, humid orbs below them. The alabaster of the face, so pure as scarcely to show the blue branching of the veins on the temples, is lighted by those superb eyes--


"Shining eyes, like antique jewels set in Parian statue-stone,"


--whose wells are so dark and deep, that you are cheated into the belief that a glorious soul looks out of them.

Once, by an unforeseen chance, I beheld the Circassian form, in its most perfect development. I was on board an Austrian steamer in the harbor of Smyrna, when the harem of a Turkish pasha came out in a boat to embark for Alexandria. The sea was rather rough, and nearly all the officers of the steamer were ashore. There were six veiled and swaddled women, with a black eunuch as guard, in the boat, which lay tossing for some time at the foot of the gangway ladder, before the frightened passengers could summon courage to step out. At last the youngest of them--a Circassian girl of not more than fifteen or sixteen years of age--ventured upon the ladder, clasping the hand-rail with one hand, while with the other she held together the folds of her cumbrous feridjee. I was standing in the gangway, watching her, when a slight lurch of the steamer caused her to loose her hold of the garment, which, fastened at the neck, was blown back from her shoulders, leaving her body screened but by a single robe of-light, gauzy silk. Through this, the marble whiteness of her skin, the roundness, the glorious symmetry of her form, flashed upon me, as a vision of Aphrodite, seen


"Through leagues of shimmering water, like a star."


It was but a momentary glimpse; yet that moment convinced me that forms of Phidian perfection are still nurtured in the vales of Caucasus.

The necessary disguise of dress hides from us much of the beauty and dignity of Humanity, I have seen men who appeared heroic in the freedom of nakedness, shrink almost into absolute vulgarity, when clothed. The soul not only sits at the windows of the eyes, and hangs upon the gateway of the lips; she speaks as well in the intricate, yet harmonious lines of the body, and the ever-varying play of the limbs. Look at the torso of Ilioneus, the son of Niobe, and see what an agony of terror and supplication cries out from that headless and limbless trunk! Decapitate LaocoŲn, and his knotted muscles will still express the same dreadful suffering and resistance. None knew this better than the ancient sculptors; and hence it was that we find many of their statues of distinguished men wholly or partly undraped. Such a view of Art would be considered transcendental now-a-days, when our dress, our costumes, and our modes of speech either ignore the existence of our bodies, or treat them with little of that reverence which is their due.

But, while we have been thinking these thoughts, the attendant has been waiting to give us a final plunge into the seething tank. Again we slide down to the eyes in the fluid heat, which wraps us closely about until we tingle with exquisite hot shiverings. Now comes the graceful boy, with clean, cool, lavendered napkins, which he folds around our waist and wraps softly about the head. The pattens are put upon our feet, and the brown arm steadies us gently through the sweating-room and ante-chamber into the outer hall, where we mount to our couch. We sink gently upon the cool linen, and the boy covers us with a perfumed sheet. Then, kneeling beside the couch, he presses the folds of the sheet around us, that it may absorb the lingering moisture and the limpid perspiration shed by the departing heat. As fast as the linen becomes damp, he replaces it with fresh, pressing the folds about us as tenderly as a mother arranges the drapery of her sleeping babe; for we, though of the stature of a man, are now infantile in our helpless happiness. Then he takes our passive hand and warms its palm by the soft friction of his own; after which, moving to the end of the couch, he lifts our feet upon his lap, and repeats the friction upon their soles, until the blood comes back to the surface of the body with a misty glow, like that which steeps the clouds of a summer afternoon.

We have but one more process to undergo, and the attendant already stands at the head of our couch. This is the course of passive gymnastics, which excites so much alarm and resistance in the ignorant Franks. It is only resistance that is dangerous, completely neutralizing the enjoyment of the process. Give yourself with a blind submission into the arms of the brown Fate, and he will lead you to new chambers of delight. He lifts us to a sitting posture, places himself behind us, and folds his arms around our body, alternately tightening and relaxing his clasp, as if to test the elasticity of the ribs. Then seizing one arm, he draws it across the opposite shoulder, until the joint cracks like a percussion-cap. The shoulder-blades, the elbows, the wrists, and the finger-joints are all made to fire off their muffled volleys; and then, placing one knee between our shoulders, and clasping both hands upon our forehead, he draws our head back until we feel a great snap of the vertebral column. Now he descends to the hip-joints, knees, ankles, and feet, forcing each and all to discharge a salvo de joie. The slight languor left from the bath is gone, and an airy, delicate exhilaration, befitting the winged Mercury, takes its place.

The boy, kneeling, presents us with finjan of foamy coffee, followed by a glass of sherbet cooled with the snows of Lebanon. He presently returns with a narghileh, which we smoke by the effortless inhalation of the lungs. Thus we lie in perfect repose, soothed by the fragrant weed, and idly watching the silent Orientals, who are undressing for the bath or reposing like ourselves. Through the arched entrance, we see a picture of the bazaars: a shadowy painting of merchants seated amid their silks and spices, dotted here and there with golden drops and splashes of sunshine, which have trickled through the roof. The scene paints itself upon our eyes, yet wakes no slightest stir of thought. The brain is a becalmed sea, without a ripple on its shores. Mind and body are drowned in delicious rest; and we no longer remember what we are. We only know that there is an Existence somewhere in the air, and that wherever it is, and whatever it may be, it is happy.

More and more dim grows the picture. The colors fade and blend into each other, and finally merge into a bed of rosy clouds, flooded with the radiance of some unseen sun. Gentlier than "tired eyelids upon tired eyes," sleep lies upon our senses: a half-conscious sleep, wherein we know that we behold light and inhale fragrance. As gently, the clouds dissipate into air, and we are born again into the world. The Bath is at an end. We arise and put on our garments, and walk forth into the sunny streets of Damascus. But as we go homewards, we involuntarily look down to see whether we are really treading upon the earth, wondering, perhaps, that we should be content to do so, when it would be so easy to soar above the house-tops.


Bayard Taylor