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.
What should you take to the hammam bath?
Sachet of Savon Noir. This is a liquid olive oil soap made to an ancient Berber recipe. I you would prefer to go plastic free, take the 30g jar of Hemp Oil Soap with you instead.
One or two bowls. Most people use plastic bowls, but copper bowls can still be found in the souks.
A Sea Sponge. We’d recommend the 5 inch Honeycomb Sponge.
Exfoliating glove, also know as a kesse, kessa, or kis. With a very course grain it feels very sensual. Again if you would prefer to go ‘plastic-free’ take the Copper and Nettle Exfoliating Glove instead.
Rhassoul clay. Collected from a pure desert source, and sun dried, rhassoul clay is renown throughout the world for its detoxifying powers.
Comb – please don’t take a Horn Comb, they don’t like getting wet.
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.)
Argan Oil. It is best to either buy Argan Oil over here or buy it directly from a argan co-op because the bottles sold in the marketsare very often fake. Only by being familiar with top quality argan oil can you tell the difference.
Alum Stone The natural alum, from the Morocco desert is without doubt a wonder deodorant. We have selected Alum Blocks in our shop and very likely you will be using this alum not just through your trip, but it will become your favourite deodorant on your return.
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 safe.
How to prepare 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 – Soap 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. Alternatively, wet the exfoliating glove, add a teaspoon or so of hemp oil soap to the glove and spread it over the entire body (except the eyes and the hair) Leave the soap 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. 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.