The honourable title of our capital is not a usual one. The denomination is an indication, similar to those distinguished titles awarded to high-grade families or communities, of the recognition and a privilege to its bearer. Making Budapest Baths a “Spa City” was a long process of raising its’ natural treasures to a noteworthy rank.
Since ancient times, springs have been surrounded by a respect, usually attributed to holy sites. Water, as a revitalising element, has been revered since antiquity. The habit of bathing, intertwined with religious practice, was first observed in the followers of the Hindi religion. The most ancient evidence of bathing culture, some five thousand years old, was found in the valleys beside the river Indus where an ancient culture with water ducts, bathrooms and bath pools existed. Yet beyond the purification of the souls, it was likewise purported to heal illnesses of the body. Indeed, water is a natural healing agent. It’s therapeutic use, applied in the simplest way, has been a component of life preservation, refreshing renewal and healing from the very early in history.
Hyppocrates, the classic philosopher and physician of the Hellenistic age, and a prophet of natural healing methods, said: “…water is still, after all, the best.”
Though medical science has endeavored to discover empirical sources of diseases and methods of healing, an uninterrupted interest in natural healing effects of water remained. Man and animal equally searched for cold or hot springs, seeking relief of their troubles and pains. Through prehistoric times, healing practices were passed along from generation to generation, especially those best proven by experience, and water played a primary role.
Early therapeutic science kept itself apart from the work of Paracelsus, Sebastian Kneipp or Vinsent Priesnitz, some of their opponents ironically saying that these men had “reinvented warm and cold water”. Contemporary therapeutic schools following them, however, agreed, that water is the best base for natural therapeutic methods Climatic therapy provided a permanent basis even in the way of life serving prevention, complex therapies and rehabilitation..
Today’s Budapest has been a habitation site noted for its baths for nearly two thousand years; From the earliest traces of various tribal settlements to the former bathing buildings and the barracks of the 2nd Roman legion in Acquincum of the province of Pannonia. The earliest known remains from after the establishment of the nation, date from 1178, and mention a settlement under the name of Felhévíz (Upper Hot Spring) in the present area of Óbuda-Újlak (thermal baths Lukács and Veli Bej). This was used by the order that Saint John created to cure the sick, which founded a bath and hospital here. In later descriptions, the “sick-house” was moved to the foot of the Saint Gellért hill, at the springs of the lower hot waters. It was later named Saint Elisabeth Hospital in honour of the daughter of our King Endre II.
The next great stage of development of our baths was brought along by the Turkish occupation. Community buildings were built on the healing waters, bearing a particular style, and incorporating a culture of individual bathing. It is wonderful that today, after nearly a half millennium, we may admire and even try the Turkish baths. Due to these baths, our capital was rightly named the Mecca of the rheumatics.
The third period in the history of Budapest bathing culture occurred during the Age of Enlightenment. As early as in the first half of the 1700s, one can find early studies about the usefulness of the Buda hot springs. In 1772, a decree was issued by Maria Theresia, Queen of Hungary (and Empress of Austria) to have all mineral waters “analysed and recorded in a list at the expense of the Treasury”. In 1812, Pál Kitaibel began the collection of data on the healing powers of hot springs. Kitaibel also compiled the first hydrography of Hungary. The city, situated on both banks of the Danube, embraced its islands, and established baths at a rate exceeding its overall pace of development, meeting the demands of the age, and even looking ahead to shape them into healing, recreating and refreshing sites for the future.
In the early 1930s, Budapest, as the capital possessing the most healing thermal water springs in the world, was awarded the title “Spa City”. At the behest of the Budapest Fürdőváros Egyesület (Budapest Spa City Association), the first International Balneological Congress was organised in Budapest in 1937. The seat of the International Balneological Association was established at the Gellért Thermal Baths in Budapest. This was motivated by the Congress with the following: “…no city can put forward a stronger claim to this than Budapest. Endowed by nature with a wonderful generosity of excellent thermal waters and unrivalled natural beauty; additionally, its high medical professionalism, the excellent equipment of its healing institutions, the high level of scientific research, makes Budapest the optimum choice for international affairs of balneology to be handled from here…”