The Arabic word hammam means ‘spreader of warmth‘. On the one hand, you can interpret it literally as hammams consist of different steam rooms and spread a lot of warmth. But they spread warmth also in a metaphorical sense: Moroccan people go to the hammam to catch up with friends and socialise: Moroccans make business or even arrange marriages.
Going to the hammam is a very important ritual in the Muslim culture: The bathing and cleansing is an integral part of a Muslim’s life, also because water is considered sacred in the Islam.
The hammam is probably the oldest surviving bath tradition in the world. The ritual dates back to both the Ottoman and Roman empires. It then spread all over the world. Especially in the middle east, it is important for the bride before the wedding to go to the hammam to ensure the softness and cleanliness of her skin.
Where can you find a hammam?
Along with the communal bakery, a fountain, the madrasa (school) and the mosque, the hammam is one of five traditional elements found in every Moroccan neighbourhood. Sometimes, the hammam is located next to the communal bakery because the two buildings share the heat. So if you see a bakery, chances are a hammam is near. When in Morocco, you will most likely find a hammam in every city, while Marrakech has some of the most beautiful hammams of the country.
Family and community take on an important role in Moroccan culture and have a higher status compared to more western parts of the world. That’s why everyone visits the hammam and usually does not go alone but with friends or family. It is a ritual going to a hammam once a week for at least two to three hours! Still, there are none for mixed gender. It is often the case that the steam rooms are reserved for women during the day while men go in the evening hours.
So… How does a hammam work?
A typical communal hammam consists of three different rooms with different temperatures. The temperature changes stimulate the flow of blood and encourage the body to sweat out impurities.
1. Getting ready
First, you enter the entrance hall. You could compare it to a locker room in a swimming. This is where get undressed. This is also the room where people relax after the hammam. Many hammams serve tea and coffee in this room, so you will be surrounded by other guests while changing.
Still, while changing be careful to cover yourself with a towel. Frontal nudity is seen as offensive. Some Moroccans go completely naked, but it is also normal to wear underpants. As a tourist you should only go completely naked if you see Moroccans do it, too.
I find it fascinating that nudity is not an issue in the Moroccan bathing culture. Women often wear a hijab and long clothes covering their body in their everyday life, so the unrestrained nudity seems surprising to me. But maybe this is just my twisted western perspective: Not wanting to see people my sex see me naked in a secure atmosphere but at the same time showing a lot of skin on the streets.
2. The Ritual
The next room is the warm room. Here is where you adapt to the temperature and wash your body from superficial dirt. Then you come to the hot room. The heat in there opens your pores and lets the body sweat out. The “ghasoul”, a lava clay which is used to scrub the skin, helps to loosen the dead skin and clean the pores. How long you want to stay in the heat room depends on your ability to cope with the heat. Moroccan women like to hang out here and gossip, though.
After you’ve had enough heat, the real treatment starts for which you go back to the warm room.
You get scrubbed! The exfoliating is done with a unique black olive soap called “sabon beldi”. Either you ask a friend or family member to rub your body or the staff can help you. Everyone scrubs each other in the bath house – that’s another cultural thing which can be a little bit weird for someone more at home in the western culture. The rubbing and removing the skin can be painful at first, but you should try to relax and enjoy it nevertheless. The bather uses a “kiis”, a glove made from crafted goat hair turned into a loofa. The suds and dead skin cells are washed away with clean water. After that, you feel newborn! And your skin feels like the skin of a new born, too. Of course, you can wash your hair here, too. After all, it’s a cleaning ritual.
3. Cooling Down
In the cold room, you can lie down, drink something to rehydrate and relax a little more. In some of the hammams, you can get a massage, too. If a fellow bather offers to massage you, it’s not a suspicious offer at all! It’s a very kind gesture, usually not financially motivated although returning the favour is somewhat expected.
Beauty and other benefits
Beauty benefits you get from a visit to a hammam are glowing fresh skin, a good peeling and deep facial cleansing. On top of that, you can relax. Being a tourist in Morocco, life on the streets can be pretty exhausting. One or two hours in the hammam can be a nice retreat from the stressful life full of impressions outside.
A hammam is also a good place to get to know locals! Being a tourist in a hammam gets you a lot of attention! If you don’t use too much water or make another big mistake – water is scarce in Morooco – you shouldn’t wonder when you get invited over for drinks or dinner by some of the local moroccans!
All in all, a visit to a hammam is good for you in many ways. Next to the beauty and health advantages, it helps you to understand and dive into the Moroccan culture. It’s always best to do as the locals do. And what’s better to take part in an essential ritual of the Moroccan everyday life?