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Tellak. Detail of an illustration from the Hubanname (The Book of the Handsome Ones), an 18th-century homoerotic work by the Turkish poet Fazyl bin Tahir Enderuni.

Traditionally, a tellak was a young male masseur who soaped and scrubbed the clients of a hammam, a place of public bathing associated with the culture of the Ottoman Empire. They were usually adolescent boys recruited from among the ranks of non-Muslim subject nations, counting among them Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Albanians, Bulgarians, Romani people and others.

Besides their role as washers, tellaks often acted as sex workers. Ottoman texts dedicated to the subject matter of tellak catamites, such as the Dellakname-i-Dilküşa, an 18th-century work by Dervish Ismail Agha (held in the Ottoman Archives of Süleymaniye, Istanbul), recorded their names, physical features and national origin, how many times they could bring their customers to orgasm, and the details of their fees and services.

At times the relationship between a tellak and his client became intensely personal. For example, it is recorded that in the mid-18th century, a janissary—a member of an elite corps in the standing army of the Ottoman Empire—had a tellak for a lover. The latter was kidnapped by the men of another regiment and given over to the use of their commander. A days-long battle between the two janissary regiments ensued, which was brought to an end only by the intervention of the Sultan, who had the tellak hanged.

The role of tellak lost its sexual aspect in the early years of the twentieth century, as a result of the increasing westernization of the Turkish Republic, and is now filled by adult attendants who specialize in more prosaic forms of scrubbing and massage, but the Turkish term hamam oğlanı (bath boy) still indicates a homosexual male.

See also