There’s a saying that goes “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home." - James A. Michener
While in Morocco, per usual, I was searching for experiences that would enhance my understanding of the Moroccan culture.
One of these things, a custom indicative to Morocco that I had no idea about before arriving in the country, was a “hammam”.
I kept hearing the term – although I have to admit, I didn’t quite know if you went to a hammam or went to get a hammam! Was “hammam” a place or an action?
History of Hammam
A hammam is a traditional public bathhouse that involves being washed and scrubbed in a series of complex rooms designed for cleansing, relaxation and socializing. The term hammam is both the location and the action (a cleansing ritual).
The concept of public bathing dates back to the Roman thermae of the Roman Empire (27 BCE to 393 CE), a time when in-home plumbing was non-existent. This practice then migrated to the Middle East and eventually was brought to Morocco.
The hammam is an ancient and integral part of Moroccan life as water and cleanliness are considered sacred essential elements of Islam. Bathing before prayer became common practice in Morocco and other Muslim countries worldwide, further increasing the popularity of hammam.
Hammams are separated by gender. Some hammams have separate entrances, others only serve one gender, and the remaining have days or times of the week exclusive for one gender. Ask your hotel for a hammam recommendation of where and when to go to a hammam.
Additionally, these public bathhouses were communal by design, allowing this to be a place to socialize, gossip, do business and even arrange marriages.
Hammam remains an important part of life in Morocco today as both a ceremonial act and as many parts of Morroco still do not have access to the plumbing necessary for in-home baths.
Once inside the bathhouse, the hammam experience is about leaving yourself in the hands of your tellak or natir, the male or female attendants respectively.
Traveler’s Tip: There are hammams where you can pay to enter and for bathing supplies, but I recommend the full experience of having a tellak or natir bathe you.
Benefits of Hammam
Beyond having a wonderfully cultured experience in Morocco (or Turkey), there are many health benefits including:
- Refines skin texture by removing dead skin
- Fights acne by balancing oil secretions, unclogs pores, and eliminate toxins
- Nourishes skin with essential vitamins and minerals
- Hydrates skin
- Decreases muscle tension
- Activates blood circulation
- Tones and firms skin and improves elasticity
- Reduces stress and anxiety, while promoting relaxation
- Feel beautiful, refreshed, and revitalized
A hammam is an experience you can and should do consistently although it is not recommended to do more than one hammam per week, due to the intense exfoliation.
My Hammam Experience
Outside of a few recounted stories from people I'd met in Morocco and my experience at a couple of Turkish baths in Budapest, also called the “City of Spas”, I had no idea what to expect.
Feeling open, my friend and I left our hotel in search of an authentic hammam experience.
Winding through the medina streets of Marrakesh, we came across that we were looking for.
A sign outside said:
Depuis 1562!!! My heart brimmed with joy. Coming from the United States, I’m still shocked and delighted when things are over 150 years old! Or perhaps everyone feels this way?
Side note: I was in a French mindset having been in the country for a couple of weeks, I didn’t even notice there was English written on it!
Under the sign was a long hallway to officially enter the hammam which I expect was included to add some privacy as the first room you enter is the room to undress.
A stone room where a few women were sitting on the floor, chatting lively between themselves greeted me.
Two of them got up to help the two of us. One of the women handed us a binder with a few pages of laminated text, a menu of services in several different languages.
There were two choices; Formula Beldi and Relaxation Formula. The difference was that the Relaxation Formula included henna. I chose the Formula Beldi without henna.
She handed me a basket and signaled for me to put my things inside of it.
I took off my shoes and clothing, leave on just my bathing suit. I wore a bathing suit here just as I had at the Turkish baths in Budapest, thinking they would be similar.
Without English, a woman instructed me to take off my swimsuit by tapping my strap and signaling “no” before she moved around to behind the counter to put a few things together.
Only a slight hesitation before I began to get completely undressed in a room full of women. The friend that I was with, seemed to be more hesitant than I, but what could we do? I was here for the experience of a traditional hammam, and clearly, the experience required me to be nude. Here goes nothing.
After I stripped down, I put my clothes, bag, and shoes in the basket, and bashfully handed the basket back to her. In return, she handed me a pair of black plastic sandals to put on.
In her hands were small jars of black goop, another of a brown powder, a scrubbing glove, and a medium size bucket that resembled what I used to build sand castles with when I was younger.
Wearing only sandals, the women led us underneath a stone archway, past another stone room whose walls were lined with stone benches, into another stone room. This last room was the largest of all of the rooms, this is where the bathing happens.
In addition to my friend and I being naked, our natirs were both topless. Not exactly relevant, but noteworthy. I didn't understand why this was necessary, but I felt a sort of comradery for her being exposed as well.
Two feet off of the ground, a bronze pipe ran around the perimeter of the large room. Spigots were places at intervals roughly an arm's length away from each other.
The once white tiles were a dull shade of their former brilliance. With child-like wonder, I pondered if these tiles were original, from the 1500s.
I stood there, stark naked, next to my new friend while the women began setting up, my friend and I looked at each other, uneasily wondering what could happen next. In the short time that my friend and I knew each other, we had already been through more things together than I have with most of the friends I’d known for years. So what was one more completely new and slightly awkward experience together?
The women turned on the spigots to let the water run, unscrewed the lids of the jars open, laid out these thin rubber mats – the kind that looked like kitchen drawer lining from the 80s – and filled the buckets when the water was hot.
Still, we were standing.
The women brashly ushered us to sit down. Their movements were clear, but I was still hesitant. Sit down, butt naked, on the floor? Ok, here I go. Again.
It was cold and wet, and felt odd against my private parts to be so exposed to the stone ground only protected by the thin rubber mats.
Note: I did not choose a luxury hammam to get a traditional service on purpose. There are many fancier hammams, including at many luxury riads that offer stone beds to lay on instead of the floor as well as other luxury amenities.
If you choose a luxury hammam, you're experience will be more similar to that of a spa. For example, you'll be provided with a robe, you'll be rubbed on a surface other than the floor, you'll be lead into different rooms like a steam room, fragrant essential oils might be used, etc.
She grabbed my limbs one by one and used the water from the bucket to pour water over them.
Once I was wet, she had me lie down entirely on the floor. She scooped out a large dollop of the black goop – which is sabon beldi, a black olive oil soap - and started bathing me with it. I was instantly surprised by it’s thick, soft and moisturizing features. It was the consistency of butter and felt amazing!
Black olive oil soap is a mixture of oil and crushed black olives, rich in vitamin E, and is exfoliating and hydrating.
With a kess - an exfoliated hand mitt - she bathed me as I lied there naked. She lifted my arms to clean my armpits and my sides, she rotated me onto my stomach to clean between my legs – that was slightly shocking. She had me sit upright so she could clean my stomach, chest, and shoulders. She was efficient in her motions.
While she never scrubbed too hard, I often heard this as a complaint from others who had a hammam experience. You can tell your tellak or natir "Bshwiya", which means slow down or soften up.
When she motioned to clean my face, I was hesitant she would rub my face raw as surely my face is the most sensitive skin on my body – but she was so slow and gentle here. I closed my eyes and sank into her care.
When I was very young, I had a nanny that when she put me to bed or when I was feeling unwell, she gently massaged my face by pretending to put make-up over my cheeks, forehead, eyelids, and lips. Here in this old, harsh, humbly beautiful stone room, I was reminded very much of that tender experience.
After the black olive oil soap, she began with the tannish brown powder which is rhassoul clay from the Atlas Mountains. Again she carefully covered every inch of my body with this clay and massaged it into my skin.
Sometimes our eyes would meet and I would smile in gratitude for her careful work, or sometimes we would both chuckle at my surprise or reluctance.
Although we did not speak the same verbal language, in those moments we were both women – naked, raw, authentic women. Human beings who work, clean up to feel good about themselves and laugh at the same awkward situations.
I walked out of the experience feeling cleaner and lighter, at peace with where I was both geographically and internally, refreshed and ready to take on anything that came my way.
So, what to expect when getting a hammam?
You will be bathed.
You can bring a swimsuit (as I did), but you will probably be naked.
You will probably feel apprehensive, even a bit uncomfortable, but ultimately liberated, cared for, and relaxed.
Expect the unexpected, enter the experience free from assumptions, and be open to the experience at hand.
And enjoy your unique experience!
I'll tell you this - after a few days in Morocco in the busy medinas, in the Sahara Desert, or hiking any of the wonderful locations you will want to feel as clean and fresh as I did after my hammam. I only wish I had done more.
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