In absence of any stories, as of yet, of female intimacy or sexual encounters at the baths I offer you a glimpse into 16th century Ottoman Istanbul. The author of this account was a European, a Flemish ambassador to Istanbul named Oghier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592). Oghier recounted stories of life in the Ottoman capital for readers back home and relished in gossip and intrigue (not to mention the requisite dash of Orientalism). Here he writes of a story that he may have heard second- (or third- or fourth-hand). A true story in the -mış gossip tense of unrequited love between women, male drag, and an unfortunate end – and to think that it all started in the baths! Where else would it begin?
“…THE GREAT MASS OF WOMEN use the public baths for females, and assemble there in large numbers. Among them are found many girls of exquisite beauty, who have been brought together from different quarters of the globe by various chances of fortune; so cases occur of women falling in love with one another at these baths, in much the same fashion as young men fall in love with maidens in our own country. Thus you see a Turk’s precautions are sometimes of no avail, and when he has succeeded in keeping his wives from a male lover, he is still in danger from a female rival! The women become deeply attached to each other, and the baths supply them with opportunities of meeting. Some therefore keep their women away from them as much as possible, but they cannot do so altogether, as the law allows them to go there. This evil affects only the common people; the richer classes bathe at home…
It happened that in a gathering of this kind, an elderly woman fell in love with a girl, the daughter of an inhabitant of Constantinople, a man of small means. When her courtship and flatteries were not attended with the success her mad passion demanded, she ventured on a course, which to our notions appears almost incredible. Changing her dress, she pretended she was a man, and hired a house near where the girl’s father lived, representing herself as one of the slaves of the Sultan, belonging to the class of cavasses; and it was not long before she took advantage of her position as a neighbour, cultivated the father’s acquaintance, and asked for his daughter in marriage. Need I say more? The proposal appearing to be satisfactory, the father readily consents, and promises a dowry proportionate to his means. The wedding-day was fixed, and then this charming bridegroom enters the chamber of the bride, takes off her veil, and begins to chat with her. She recognises at once her old acquaintance, screams out, and calls back her father and mother, who discover that they have given their daughter in marriage to a woman instead of a man.
The next day they bring her before the Aga of the Janissaries, who was governing the city in the Sultan’s absence. He tells her that an old woman like her ought to know better than to attempt so mad a freak, and asks, if she is not ashamed of herself? She replies, “Tush! You know not the might of love, and God grant that you may never experience its power.” At this the Aga could not restrain his laughter; and ordered her to be carried off at once, and drowned in the sea. Thus the strange passion of this old woman brought her to a bad end.”
From Life & Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, C. Kegan Paul & Co., London, 1881, pp. 231 – 232.
Excerpted from here.