The Turkish bath is a legendary form of therapy. No surprise, then, that it leaves some with satisfying sexual side effects.
Almost from the moment they landed in Istanbul, my friend Geoffrey’s wife, Anne, started reminding him to look into Turkish baths. She told him she’d heard they were life-altering. Their two-week trek was a few years back, but to this day, friends ask the same question: Did you have a Turkish bath?
They did, of course. But their first days in Istanbul were packed with other priorities: a cruise on the Bosphorus and window shopping in the tony Taksim quarter. Then there were “must” visits to Haghia Sophia, the Byzantine “Church of the Holy Wisdom”; the 17th-century Blue Mosque; and the Archeological Museum and tile-encrusted Harem in Topkapi Palace.
Then they left the city to tour the ancient Greco-Roman sites at Pergamom, Ephesus, and Heraclei, among others, and moved on to Urgup, in Cappadocia, where, Geoff recalled, “we hiked the Valley of the Imagination and stooped to climb four levels down into a fascinating underground city carved out of the earth by early Christians. When we got back to Istanbul, there were only two days left.” The time was then–or maybe never—for the experience.
As the desk clerk at their hotel pointed out, Istanbul has several bath houses, but the nearest one happened to be the oldest and most popular: Cagaloglu, on one of the sloping streets nearby in the Sultanahmet district. “Getting there was just a short hike,” says Geoff. “We had no excuse. On the last day of our trip we toured the Grand Bazaar and the pungent Spice Market before weary legs brought us to the baths, which, according to a huge sign that greeted us, was ‘one of 1,000 places to see before you die.’”
The guidebooks say that Cagaloglu, a gift to the city by a ruling sultan in 1751, had been visited over time by such personages as Kaiser Wilhelm, Franz Liszt, and Florence Nightingale. Geoff joined that roster, pausing just inside the entrance to check the prices. They didn’t choose the most expensive: the so-called “deluxe bath”—at 38 lira each (about $26 at the time)—seemed adequate. In a nearby showroom, Geoff and Anne were offered special soaps and oils.
Geoff and Anne were also shown a kind of lightweight loofah (they described it as a thick cheesecloth mitt) and told that they didn’t have to buy it, but if they didn’t, the bath attendant would have no choice but to employ a loofah that had been used on other bathers.
“No further nudging was needed,” Geoff remembers. They bought two loofahs for 10 lira each (a total just under $14). Then the two parted. Anne went off to the women’s wing, and Geoff was pointed toward a half-glassed-in cubicle within the camekan, the domed interior courtyard that served as both reception room and waiting area.
English was spoken only fitfully at Cacaloglu; communication was achieved mostly through gestures. But Geoff says he quickly discerned that he was to remove his shoes and leave them on the doorstep before entering his changing room, a small, lockable cubicle. A plaid towel and a huge brass key were handed to him, and it was made clear that he was to remove his clothes, wrap himself in the towel, stick his feet in the wooden clogs set out for him and lock the cubicle door when he left, to secure his wallet and passport.
He also took off his glasses, which meant that for the next 30 minutes or so, what he saw would be a bit of a blur. Clutching his key and loofah, he followed a gesture that guided him through two sets of doors and into the steamy bararet (hot room) that lay beneath a central dome, which was smaller in scale than the camekan‘s but no less majestic.
There, stretched out on a vast marble plinth (the gobek tasi), were two discreetly covered naked bathers awaiting their promised massage. “I sat on an empty corner of the plinth, my balls heated by the warmed-up stone, and tried to stay cool,” Geoff says. “The atmosphere, while not exactly stifling, was pretty torrid.”
An attendant presented himself. He, too, was wrapped in a plaid towel, which in his case concealed black trunks; otherwise he was covered as minimally as Geoff. He was burly rather than muscular, with a command of a handful of English words—three of which were “Stretch out, please.”
Geoff positioned himself facedown on the slab and his attendant placed a heavy, sand-filled pillow under his head. “Relax,” he ordered, as though anyone could do that on command. After draping the towel over Geoff’s midsection, the attendant began his massage, which was a kind of head-to-toe pummeling. He had strong hands and arms, Geoff says—so strong that when he pressed Geoff’s “rather fragile” knees into the hard marble, “I saw stars.”
“Turn over,” he ordered finally, and Geoff was really happy to do so. After rearranging the towel—with similar discretion—the attendant began his pummeling again, starting with Geoff’s forehead and the top of his head and moving down to his ankles and feet. “Looking up at light beaming in through glass in the ceiling dome, I felt momentarily transported,” Geoff recalls.
Then, abruptly, a hand gripped his arm; his attendant was now pulling him to his feet and leading him to the next phase. “He took away my towel and seated me on a marble bench, my back pressed against a stone wall. He then splashed my body with very warm water and took the loofah I’d been holding, put it on his own hand and began rubbing my shoulders, arms, back, belly, thighs, and legs.”
Geoff says he felt his skin tingling, and saw that much of it was getting red, as layers of what he guessed was dead skin were apparently rubbing off. Next came the actual bath. The attendant suddenly produced a huge, soapy washcloth that looked like a bundle of rags. He rubbed the frothy stew over Geoff’s body, then rinsed him off with additional splashes of warm water. “It didn’t seem particularly classic and was only borderline hygienic.”
Two other areas of the bararet were pointed out: first, a room where it was suggested he could sit and meditate in high heat, and then a room with a huge stone well filled with cold water. That’s where he was supposed to cool off before moving out.
Geoff laughs: “I lasted about five minutes in the first room—its heat was pretty close to unbearable—then shifted warily to the room with the cold water well. There were steps, and the lighting was pretty dim. Being myopic, I had to be careful not to trip or hit a wall.” His clogs had smooth soles and the marble floors had wet spots. He moved “like an old guy on roller skates.”
Then he hit the cold water, and couldn’t get enough of it. He kept splashing myself, finally deciding that a more effective way to chill out was probably just to leave. But where was the door?
“When I saw one of my predecessors make an exit, I followed him out … into the sogukluk, an intermediate room, where I was given three dry towels: two small ones for my face and hair, plus one large one for the rest of me. I wrapped myself up like a sheik and was handed some bottled drinking water, which I welcomed. The next set of doors, I knew, would return me to the camekan, the main reception area.”
That’s where his attendant was waiting. He was holding Geoff’s loofah—wrapped up in a take-home bag—and was smiling for the first time. He shook Geoff’s hand cordially and pointed him back toward his cubicle, where he finished drying off, drank most of his water, and dressed. When he emerged, still sweating, he noticed his attendant hadn’t moved an inch. The man nodded as Geoff palmed off a three-lira tip, which seemed more expected than appreciated.
It was cool in that vast room, and there were inviting lounge chairs. Geoff plunked himself into one and didn’t move for a while. Then he got an erection.
His face reddens a bit as he tells me. It was unusual, he says, after being exposed to so much heat.
“I guess I really did feel relaxed as I lay there,” he says, “and I was happy Anne’s massage and bath were taking longer.” When she finally reappeared, with descriptions that paralleled his own (except that her middle-aged bath attendant had been topless, the plaid towel covering only her lower body), he had cooled off sufficiently and was soft again.
“By that time, it was nearly sundown, and the air outside was cool,” Geoff remembers. “As we walked together the few blocks to our hotel, I felt as though I were floating, my feet not quite touching those rough sidewalks and cobbled streets. The heat within Cagaloglu, the warm water, and the vigorous pummeling had worked their magic, I guess.”
“It wasn’t really life-altering,” Anne agrees. “But it was an experience. and I guess no one should leave Turkey without doing it, right?” Geoff heartily concurs—even though his knees hurt for days after.
“We were at least an hour late for dinner with old friends at their favorite Istanbul restaurant,” he tells me rather sheepishly. “But, well, when we got back to our room, we pulled off our clothes, hopped into bed and went at it like horny newlyweds. Wow.
“Maybe that’s why Turkish baths are so popular. I mean, I lasted 45 minutes. It’d been maybe 20 years since I did that. To be honest, I can’t wait to get back there.”
—Photo via UK Pictures/Flickr