What is a hammam bath?
A hammam bathing refers to the customs and rituals surrounding public bathing in Morocco, in steam filled chambers. Although many urban Moroccans have had water piped into their houses since the Medieval period and small hammam enclosures exist in most houses, virtually every Moroccan visits the public baths at least once a week.
The bathing is appropriately segregated men from women, either by the time of day, or in the larger baths by using separate chambers and so it is important to check the opening hours carefully.
Origins of the Hamman Bathing Tradition
A hammam bath is found among every community across Morocco. The cleansing and social ritual of hammam bathing, stemming, likely, from bathing by prehistoric peoples at sacred springs, took on its full character after the building by the Romans of bath complexes across the Empire and again after recommendations by the prophet Mohammed about the effects of hammam bathing on health, fertility and longevity!
A Public Hammam
On entering the domed hammam chamber, intense chatter between young and old, neighbour and friend hums over the background sounds of moving, highly energized, water. Such variety of bodies, washing, relaxing and laughing, galvanizes a sense of harmony, safety and sanctum. A fusion of sound and motion echoes around the steam filled chamber as the ritual unfolds.
Traditional Hammam Products
Essential to this time honoured process are the Savon Noir, the Rhassoul clay, the Argan Oil and the rough exfoliating gloves, as well as the knowledge of this tradition, passed down in an oral chain of knowledge through Moroccan matriarchs. It is thanks to the tribal and semi-nomadic Berbers that this heritage has been preserved and it is generously shared.
It is important to pass on this knowledge to help support and re-develop the traditional skills and heritage which is behind the hammam products: Making Savon Noir on the camp fire from ashes and black olives; mining Rhassoul by hand and sun-drying the clay. Equally it is imperative to support the women′s cooperatives which collect the Argan fruit from UNESCO protected trees. Only the ripe fruits are used, and after sun-drying, the oil rich kernel of the Argan fruit is extracted by hand between stones, before it is cold pressed. This supply was freshly pressed and completely traceable. All of these resources fully available to the Berbers, are, completely pure and natural, highly effective and environmentally friendly.
The virtues of these products are such that upmarket spas across the world include Rhassoul on their treatment menus, and they are beginning to take notice of the demand for Argan Oil.
The Basic Traditional Hammam Method
An application of Savon Noir, massaged into the wet skin for 10 minutes, deep cleanses, stimulates the circulation and prepares the skin for a vitalizing rinse and exfoliation with the characteristically rough exfoliating glove. The Rhassoul is then layered all over the body. It deep cleanses the hair and scalp and on the skin it cleans, detoxifies, softens, balances, nourishes, heals and passes on the energy of the sun and moon which it has accumulated under the clear desert sky. Finally, precious Argan oil, anti-aging, protecting and healing, is massaged into the nails, lips, brushed through the hair if needed, and massaged into any body part ready to receive it.
The hammam ritual is conceived somewhat differently in the UK, with accord for privacy, indulgence, and complete relaxation (wraps in treatment rooms) or small steam chambers. However the results across both continents are the same – any Moroccan will smile when Rhassoul is mentioned, and anyone new to this – almost primal ritual, wants to experience the profound results of this tradition time and time again.
What to take to the hammam
Sachet of Savon Noir. This is a liquid olive oil soap made to an ancient Berber recipe.
One or two bowls. Most people use plastic bowls, but copper bowls can still be found in the souks.
Sponge or flannel
Exfoliating glove, also know as a kesse, kessa, or kis. With a very course grain it feels very sensual.
Rhassoul clay. Collected from a pure desert source, and sun dried, rhassoul clay is renown throughout the world for its detoxifying powers.
If desired a small waterproof mat, wooden stool (unfortunately much replaced by plastic stools)
2 or 3 buckets can be hired on site.
Bottle of drinking water
Snacks (dates, nuts, tangerines, etc.)
A bag for these things and once you are undressed your shoes and clothes.
Hair dryers are not allowed
Leave all of your jewellery, including earrings in the hotel.
Preparing for the hammam bath
Allow several hours for your visit. If you have never been before, clarify the fees and any services you require before entering. It is helpful to take a Moroccan acquaintance along to help with this part unless you are confident in French or Arabic. A Moroccan will also be able to advice you of how much to pay in tips. The hire of buckets and for assistance and massage by the hammam guardian are extra. On entry you will be given a ticket.
Go to the changing room and get undressed. Men must keep their trunks on and women may wear a bikini, just dark coloured pants, or nothing at all. However bear in mind that some regions in Morocco can be quite conservative, so try to work out what is acceptable in that hammam. Everything in the first list can be taken into the chambers with you. Everything in the second list, packed in the bag with your shoes and clothes, take to the attendants at the reception with the ticket and a small tip. Don’t expect a receipt for your bag – the attendants will remember which things are yours.
Hammam Step 1 – Savon Noir and Exfoliation
Go into the steam chamber. Your will notice that the floors slope downwards towards a drain. Try to find a position against the wall, so that you are not downstream of any used water and so you are not too close to the cistern to avoid impeding access. Position yourself, so that your used water does no run into another bather. If you are hiring buckets gather some hot water and wash the buckets out. Be careful because the water is sometimes scalding hot. Be sure to pour the dirty water towards the drain and not in the water cisterns or fountains!
Fetch a bucket of hot water from the fountain, and a bucket of cold water. Return to your spot and in one your buckets, using your bowl, mix the water you have collected to the right temperature. Pour the water over you (even this part feels divine!) to induce sweating and relax in the humid chamber. Allow your body’s natural cleansing mechanism to activate. If you become too hot, move into a cooler chamber. Sit on the floor or on you mat with your back to the wall and arrange your things in a semi circle around you to define your space.
Empty your sachet of Savon Noir and a little water into the bowl. Mix and wipe over the skin. Take care not get the Savon Noir in your eyes. It is best to avoid applying this soap to the face all together. Leave the Savon Noir on the skin, massaging for up to ten minutes. This special soap will deep clean the pores and help to separate the dead layer of skin from the living layer in preparation for the exfoliation. If an attendant is helping you, she will clean all of your body at this stage, even lowering or completely removing your pants. Don’t be alarmed, she is treating you as she would one of her children. Empty any unused Savon Noir out of the bowl, and then use the clean bowl to scoop water out of your warm water bucket. Avoid getting soap in the buckets. Pour this water over your head allowing it to trickle down the body rinsing away the Savon Noir.
Now exfoliate vigorously with the exfoliating glove. If an attendant does this for you she will be very thorough causing your skin to go red. If you find the treatment too rough say, ‘shuya‘ and she will go more gently. Watch how other hammam bathers polish every inch of the bodies with this course grained glove. If you have not exfoliated for some time don’t be surprised if the skin come off in rolls. Your skin will feel alive, as the circulation is invigorated, oxygenation is increase, the lymphatic circulation will be enhanced and best of all the dead skin will be removed allowing the living skin to perform its health giving functions. Make sure that your finish with a thorough rinse.
If you are bathing alone, it is quite acceptable to ask another bather for help in scrubbing your back. Do offer to return the favour. If have paid for a massage it may take place at this point on the floor or a stone slab in the hot chamber. Men will also be stretched. This massage is not for the feint hearted – skip it if you have a bad back! The masseur will be dressed in the same way as the other bathers.
Step 2 – Rhassoul Clay hair wash, face mask and body detox
Now mix up the rhassoul clay in your bowl into a more liquid form to pour over the hair, and then comb the rhassoul through the hair. Massage the scalp if your scalp is dry, but just let the hair hang. Rinse. Mix up the remaining rhassoul and smother over your face and body. Now relax and allow the clay to detoxify and nourish the skin. I would suggest a minimum of twenty minutes for the best effects, particulalry if you have any hint of skin troubles. Rinse thoroughly. Wash out the bowl and your buckets, collect your belongings from the reception and return to the changing room.
Step 3 – Argan Oil
Apply alum stone (natural deodorant) in the arm pits before they dry.
Dry your body and facing the wall and covering yourself with a towel change into dry underwear. Massage the Argan Oil into the face, hands, nails, and where ever else it is needed. The oil will absorb quickly. Get dressed, and cover the wet hair with a head scarf. To leave with wet uncovered hair is frowned upon – as the Moroccans believe you will catch a chill.
While you leave the hammam, people may say ‘Bisaha’ (to your health), reply with ‘Allah atik sa HA’, returning the wish.
Hammam Bathing leaves a lasting impression
Visiting a hammam bath (public bath) in Morocco is a totally unforgettable experience and I would it recommended to all travelers whatever their budget. On my first visit I was somewhat overwhelmed by the noisy chatter, the sound of falling water, and the clatter of buckets and my unfamiliarity with the products and process. Eventually I relaxed as the sounds resonating around the chamber like improvised music, stilled my internal chatter. There seemed to be a complete lack of body shyness – women most likely in their eighties were as naked and natural as the little girls. I was struck by the array of body types from women of all ages which seemed to merge into the essence of ‘female.’ Also, never did I see any hint of cellulite nor stretch marks, surely a great testament to the hammam tradition in its entirety. Families, neighbours and friends bath together and this adds to the positive energy.
The time flew and I had never felt so clean in my life, nor slept so deeply that night. While at home in my UK bathroom, I try to mimic the hammam ritual as closely as possible, but there is nothing quite like the real thing.
Final Hammam Advice
While upmarket hotel spas exist in Morocco which are more akin to UK spas, where individuals are more isolated, passive and pampered, to gain a true picture of this most ancient of washing practises go to a public hammam. On the first visit, the routine and etiquette can be somewhat confusing as we really have no equivalent in the UK. My best advice is to buy the hammam products before you go to Morocco, and get used to using them at home first. Then you will be able to soak up the atmosphere and join in with the intensely social nature of this ritual. While you are in Morocco you will be able to buy, as a discerning shopper, extra supplies to bring home and share among friends.