Sunrays shine down on the narrow alleys of the medina, projecting arabesque-shaped patterns on the heavy walls. Traffic sounds and afternoon chatters resonate in the market streets with a fragrant aroma filling the air. Ashraf walks before us, showing the way in the serpentine maze and telling stories full of life about his experience of Marrakech. We have met in the morning and already experience a strong cross-cultural complicity.
After a day spent walking in this foreign city and learning about its culture, our mind are quite overwhelmed with a variety of new impressions and our bodies feel gently sore from strolling around the medina. Ashraf suggests we conclude our explorations with a relaxing couple hammam. The word itself sparks my imagination. Wouldn’t it be marvellous to lie down in a hot bath and leave the animation of the souks behind us for a moment?
Moroccans consider the hammam almost as a sacred ritual. Usually, it consists of a steam bath with three rooms of different temperatures: a hot steam bath, a warm washing room and the resting room to finish the ritual. Once you enter the hammam, you already feel the welcoming warmth winning over your body. Your muscles relax, a subtle scent tickles your nose and the calm music ambiance eases your ears.
A purification ritual invented by the Romans
Where does this bathing tradition actually come from? The Romans invented hot baths, so called thermae, with a characteristic architectural layout where hot steam flows through pipes hidden in the walls. The Arabs quickly adopted this practice, while they used to wash in cold water only. The lack of plumbing in Moroccan homes justified the need for common bathing houses.
Religious people saw the steam bath as a path to purification, in addition to the mandatory ablutions before each Muslim prayer. The hammam assumed a religious purpose and became an annex to mosques and an indisputable place of the social life of the Muslim community. However, the hammam gained utter popularity only at the beginning of the 7th century. Ashraf affirms that Prophet Mohammed recommended the warmth and cleansing to increase health, longevity and fertility.
Originally reserved to men, the public steam baths opened their doors to women. “Today, they meet at the hammam and gossip about men,” Ashraf jokes. Among other things, matriarchs used to look for their sons’ future wives at the hammam. Men, meanwhile, evoked their business or political affairs in the separate section. Still today, men and women bathe separately, except in private steam rooms dedicated to couple experiences.
The hammam etiquette
The hammam continues to play an important role in the cultural and religious life of Moroccans, who visit the hammam weekly together with their family or friends – obviously same-gender. There, they cleanse their bodies and minds from the stressful daily life of busy cities. More than ever, the hammam has become an intimate place for relaxation that combines care, pleasure and well-being. It remains especially central in the life of women as cultural rituals happen in the hammam, such as the traditional bath of the bride before the wedding ceremony or after a pregnancy.
Our hammam experience lasted for almost one and a half hour. We took off all our clothes (except underpants) and had a quick shower to rinse our body. We were ready for some delightful time in the hottest steam room, designed to perspire and evacuate the toxins. For a moment, there was only the two of us, chatting about our day and relaxing. At this stage, muscles soften and the mind clears, as you seat on a hot bench and massage your body with the savon beldi, a black soap made of olive flesh and pressed oil. This natural paste softens the skin and facilitates the exfoliation. After rinsing the soap away, the professional hammam ladies invited us to start the vigorous skin scrub. Moroccans use a specific glove whose name sounds like a kiss, the kess, which is a powerful scrubbing tool. As we lied down on the dedicated tables, we were rubbed from head to toe with expertise and strength. The ladies applied lemon juice before a hydrating clay mask. As we arose from the table, we had regained our soft baby skin.
There are a variety of different treatments you can get at the hammam, all with natural ingredients such as herbs, henna, clay, mud or essential oils. Herbal baths, mud masks called the ghassoul or argan oil massages are very popular. The hammam experience was the perfect balance after our active day, creating a warm and intimate atmosphere for a precious couple time. What did we do there? We got hot, scrubbed and cleaned. We also wondered at the simplicity of this ritual, laughed a lot and meditated in silence.
It is no surprise that Morocco was named Africa's Best Spa Destination in both 2015 and 2016.