The tradition of Moroccan hammams

The literal meaning of hammam, in Arabic, is ‘spreader of warmth’. We warmly encourage you to give it a go.
It can be a little daunting when you are first invited to partake in a hammam experience in Morocco. It is nearly always included in a cultural vacation in Morocco and, if it isn’t, we highly recommend you seek one out. To miss a hammam in Morocco is like overlooking an ‘onsen’ opportunity in Japan, or a sauna in Finland. They are part of the culture and a lot of fun, as well as historically fascinating.
The hammam, often known as a Turkish Bath in other parts of the world, dates back to the early days of the Islamic Empire, with ritual washing before prayer being instilled as part of the culture by the Prophet Mohammed. Because the hot room and all round heating of the body is an important feature of the hammam experience, religious leaders also promoted this sharing of warmth as being good for all round health and fertility.
Inspired, no doubt, by the baths of the Roman Empire which had dominated lands as far south as Morocco, a traditional hammam has three rooms: hot, warm and cold, as well as a lot of marble and mosaics in many cases. These are places to open up the pores and let the warmth spread through your mind, body and soul. Traditionally, the hammam is a social whirl in Morocco, with people rarely going on their own but using the time out to meet with friends or family. A two or three hour visit is the norm, and men and women are separated of course, with the tradition being that women use it during the day and men in the evenings. You will often find the hammam next door to a bakery because, traditionally, the two buildings shared the heat. Sustainable spas go back a long way, it would seem.
There are many of these traditional hammams still to be found in Morocco, although there are also chi chi versions which fit into the popular spa tourism niche. We like to stick with the traditional hammam heritage here at Responsible Travel. If you see a local woman bringing her bread out of one building and then going into the one beside it, you know you are onto the real thing. Especially when you see here coming out a couple of hours later, arm in arm with a few pals, all shining like new pins.
Getting the hammam habit
Savon noir, used to scrub you down in the hammam, is a gloopy black soapy mix made of olives and olive oil, sometimes with eucalyptus added.
You will be allocated someone to look after you when you arrive at a hammam, although local people usually do their own ablutions, or scrub each other down using the traditional black soap and exfoliating glove. All a bit ouch, with a lot of oohs thrown in. Unless you are at a very local hammam where you are expected to bring all your own gear, you will be given a hammam towel, an absorbent cotton wrap which have all become a bit on trend of late.
Do you go naked or not? This depends on the hammam, but for the most part women wear underwear of some kind. Others will go naked but it is recommended to only do this if local people are doing so. Once the underwear or no underwear issue has been resolved, you head to the warm room where you rinse off your daily dirt, allow your body to adapt to the temperatures and let your pores open up a little. Then to the hot room (yes it keeps getting hotter) where an attendant will soap and scrub with the traditional black savon noir which gives a whole new meaning to tactile culture. If being touchy feely takes you way out of your comfort zone, you may want to think again about heading to the hammam.
You will then be asked to shower and rinse off the black soap, and then head to the cool room to collapse, recover and possibly even have a massage. Depending on the hammam, they will either have massage practitioners on site, or with traditional hammams, friends and family massage each other. You may even have someone ask if you want a massage and, for the most part, this is just the done thing. It is also the done thing to return the favour.

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Hammam gear
Water is a rare commodity so Moroccans use it wisely. This is why, in some hammams, buckets are provided to rinse yourself after a scrub. In others, you may need to bring one with you.
At traditional local hammams, they are unlikely to provide you with the necessary kit as everyone brings their own. However, you can check with your tour operator or accommodation provider and they will help you sort it out in advance. In general you need a water bowl to rinse yourself off, a kess scrubbing glove which are made by Moroccan weavers originally from goats’ hair, black soap, plastic mat for the floor and a towel. As well as some shampoo if you want to do a full clean up afterwards. You can buy all of these things at the local market if you are very organised , then you have them to bring home.
Meryem Benkhati, is one of several female tour guides with our leading cultural vacations in Morocco supplier, Intrepid Travel:

“I really recommend a hammam because besides having glowing smooth skin and feeling relaxed, having a hammam is the ultimate local experience and a traditional weekly ritual for Moroccans. If you are feeling nervous and bit awkward to take your clothes off in front of a stranger don’t overthink it as it a very common and a socially accepted thing to do in Morocco (as long as you do it in the hammam in front of people of the same sex).”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Wei Pan] [Moroccan hammam one: Sar and Ish ] [Moroccan mosaic: Annie Spratt] [Moroccan hammam two: Andy Wright ] [Massage: Toa Heftiba]
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