Mihir and I — old friends reunited in Istanbul — paused in front of the Cemberlitas Hammam, which had been built in 1584 by Sinan, one of Turkey’s most celebrated architects. For nearly 500 years, the men of Istanbul had taken their ritual cleansings here, and it was our turn to join the long drip of history.
We descended the stairs, where we found a warm sitting room — a kind of lodge, really — peopled by men in various states of undress. Directed by an attendant, we took a pair of striped towels and repaired to a small changing room. Naked but for a towel, this old friend and I headed for the baths, led by a stooped old man who showed us into the main, domed room.
The focal point was a knee-high marble octagon about thirty feet across. Dozens of men sprawled about, most looking asleep, or perhaps expired. Through dozens of dinner-plate sized skylights bored into the dome, the faint light of a rainy day filtered down. With our glasses fogged, Mihir and I laid out on the hot slab and began to sweat.
Perspiring on a hot day can be an unpleasant experience; in a bathing suit and perhaps with a beer in hand, gathering heat from summer sun can be satisfying; but it is an altogether different — and slightly insane — project to slowly roast, in only a towel, surrounded by other roasting men in a suffocating fog of steam. As my skin grew pink with heat, every pore sluiced out great rivers of fluid. There was no refuge; every cubic inch of this ancient room was a cloud of wet heat.
Lying to our left was a tall, Germanic fellow. Unbeknownst to him, a smiling, broad-shouldered Turk loomed over his prostrate and mostly exposed body. The Turk leaned over and gave the German’s feet a slap. “Sit,” he told him. And so began a punishing ritual of rubbing and limb-twisting that I could scarcely see — both for the fog on my glasses and my desire to remain dumb to my near future.
Imagining my arms pushed to their breaking point by a sturdy man of great strength, I remembered with a sigh of relief the slim old man who’d shuffled in with us. Of course, he would be the one to attend to us!
Just when I thought I could no longer take the heat, Mihir’s feet were tapped by the old man. I laid there, a pink man on a hot rock, and wondered when my time would come.
Soon enough, a burly Turk stood before me, leering and cracking his knuckles. Shit, I thought, and leaned over to see that the old man was still busy with Mihir. I was screwed.
Sizing up my charge, I noticed a mustache and an expanse of rippling muscle. From a wide bowl, he produced a series of warm splashes that meant I was now not only nearly naked, but also quite wet.
As I considered this state of affairs, the Turk produced a sort of cloth bag, which he rubbed with soap and water. Then he took the bag to his lips and blew it out into a foaming ball of soap suds. Onto my stomach landed the feathery sphere, and the Turk proceeded to suds me down, gently kneading my stomach, my arms, my legs. “Turn,” he said, and I soon found the man’s hands all over nearly inch of my back, legs, and head.
With his pink victim — me — covered in soap, he began to grind his fat paw into my chest, then into the long muscles along my legs. Was he trying to prove that this was an asexual experience by making it rather uncomfortable? Soon, the pain made my legs spasm involuntarily. Then he said “OK,” and I — pliant and near dizzy with the heat and the pummeling — foolishly mimicked him. “Okay?,” I said meekly.
With that, he began to push all his weight into my muscles, grinding them deeper and slower with thumb and forefinger. Then he grabbed my right arm, pushing it across my chest, past its limit. The left arm twitching with alarm, I found myself letting him take that limb in the other direction, arms now crossed, and I could feel my shoulders popping ominously.
“Sit,” he said, and then onto my head he poured a wall of water that rendered breathing a fond memory. More soap followed, and the world was a bubbly, choking blur. He lightly patted my head, indicating his force would now be pushing my head down, and then down some more. I felt the first joint in my spine pop. He pushed further. Then next one popped. The popping continued until he’d expertly and mercilessly rendered me — if not paralyzed — at least rather flustered.
Groaning, blind, hot, and clean, I was led into a cooler room, where with some alarm I realized my burly Turk was not yet done. I was sitting on a marble bench beside a 500-year-old sink. A series of cold bowls of water washed me of heat, of soap, and of that time when my neck still worked.
At last he stood me up, and my knees were shaking. He looked into my eyes, grabbed my hand and squeezed. Bones in my hand I had not been aware of popped and groaned. “Now you,” he said. I did my best, squeezing his broad fingers, and he pantomimed pain.
In a daze, I found Mihir and we glided up to our room, where we toweled off and regarded our clothes with some confusion. Did we really have to put this stuff back on?
We did, and we walked back into the old city. The rain had slowed, and we set off to meet the rest of the day. A great time. I just couldn’t turn my head.