Africa Travel

Magic & Mud at the Moroccan Hammam

Chapter Eleven Scrub Down

I’ve had some pretty remarkable “spa” experiences over the years and through the travels of My Fab Fifties Life; a massage by a blind woman in Zanzibar stands out; the public baths in Budapest were fun; a most memorable Korean Spa Experience (read about that one here); soaking in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland on a cold winter night remains a highlight;  the Thai masseuse jumping up and down on my back I won’t soon forget.

And now, here in memorable Morocco a new experience – the ancient way of the Hammam.

A Hammam is a cleansing experience, a social event, and a structure.  The ancient buildings were often the only source of hot water for the people of the medina and villages and these places became the social center of life in the old times.  To have a Hammam in your neighborhood was a much sought after addition.  Usually built near to a mosque to share a water source for cleansing.  The Hammams old and new are designed to trap warm air and vent steam, usually through a domed ceiling with small star-shaped holes.

A Hammam experience is very different from the Korean Spa experience where you “soaked” in tubs of different temperatures.  Instead, in Islam it is considered unclean to “soak” in water.  Instead it involves a lot of pouring water and scrubbing and spraying.  Islamic people are fastidiously clean, washing hands and face three times before praying and praying up to five times a day.

Today’s Hammams are usually open for women during the day and men in the evening.  Women flock to the Hamman to enjoy the ritual cleanse, relax and get away from their daily duties, and to gossip and socialize with their neighbors.  Just like fasting, a weekly ritual for devout muslims, a weekly visit to the hammam is part of both a religious and social Moroccan life.

When we were in Asillah I visited my first Hammam, but it was not purely authentic although I enjoyed it immensely.  It was geared more to tourists and was located in a hotel.  Here I spent two hours having a woman scrub and cleanse me and wash my hair.  Following this I also had a massage and a manicure and pedicure.  It was all very lovely and relaxing and my skin felt so fresh and new.

My second Hammam was a very authentic one in the city of Fes with my friend Sarah.  Fes is Morocco’s second largest city and the world’s largest medina (and oldest – a Unesco Heritage site).  The city of Fes has so many hammams, nearly one in every neighborhood. Even though there are so many they are nearly impossible to find.  The medina is an incredible maze and since few businesses of any kind have signage, you can easily walk right by and not know you just passed a Hammam.

So we were taken to the Hammam by the housekeeper of our Airbnb.  She took us to the hidden one close to our Riad. She helped show us how it works. She brought all the things we needed and proceeded to create a very magical authentic cultural experience, even though she speaks not a word of English.

At first it was a bit weird hanging out naked with our housekeeper. But we got over that after we were doused over and over with hot water. While we sat on the tile floor she slathered us down with African black soap, a mixture of several oils and plant extracts that looks like mud. It is solid but greasy and turns to liquid when rubbed on your warm skin. It felt pretty nice. She then used a scrub mitt and scrubbed the hell out of my skin. She was pretty proud of how much skin she sloughed off. Doused. Next she mixed dry henna with water and slathered that all over (I mean ALL over) my body. The green henna smelled exactly like spinach. Doused.

Next she washed, conditioned and combed out our hair. Doused. I thought at this point we were done. Not.

Next she lathered a loofah with jasmine soap and scrubbed us down again. Doused.

Next she poured dry rosebuds in giant buckets of hot water. While the roses soaked she cleansed herself while we relaxed.   She then took the rose-water and doused one final big time. At this point my contact lenses and my inhibitions floated away.

The room was abuzz with about a dozen other women of all ages including two small children.  The women all helped each other scrub their backs.  There was one very ancient women who seemed to be the hammam madam.  She refilled water buckets and cleaned up, dressed in what looked like board shorts and nothing more.

This experience although unique, was similar to rituals in other countries. It seems to me everyone except the USA has some kind of ancient communal bathing ritual. If you can relax and let the magic take over, you should try it.  It was fun to experience it so authentically here in Fes.

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