Known by its Arabic name, the hammam is a public bath house and place for communal cleansing. There are variants all over the world, most notably Turkish baths, but also Roman baths and Russian banyas. The Turkish bath became popular in Western Europe during the Victorian Era. Islamic hammams, particularly Moroccan hammams, evolved from the Roman baths to incorporate the needs of ritual purification according to Islam. One of the Five Pillars of Islam is prayer and it is customary for Muslims to perform ablutions prior to prayer. The two forms of Islamic ablution are ghusl (full body cleansing and purification) and wudu (cleansing of the face, hands and feet). Hammams are often found next to mosques for just this purpose.
In Morocco, hammams are typically smaller than Roman bath houses. Because Morocco was never under Ottoman rule, its baths are not considered Turkish in style or structure. While it may be difficult to identify a hammam from its facade, due to the private nature of them, they are significant sites of Moroccan design and architecture.
Moroccan men and women visit separate hammams frequenting once or twice a week for sometimes as long as 2 to 3 hours at a time. Lady hammams in Morocco play a special role in society serving as feminine social spaces where women are completely free in their nudity to relax, rejuvenate, and otherwise socialize unselfconsciously. Hammams serve as an integral and important part of Moroccan culture where Muslim women can disrobe entirely to scrub, massage and bath one another with relaxed abandon. Hammams offer women a place where they can feel more at ease than they feel in other areas of the public sector, free from the gaze of men. Some say the hammam is the equivalent of a coffee house – a place where ladies go to catch up, chat and gossip.
Others envision hammans as erotic, orgiastic bathhouses where women go to express themselves sexually, but far from that, I’ve found that hammams provide women with an intimate social setting where they can simply be at ease with one another and themselves. There are traditional hammams and upscale spa hammams catering to foreigners. Both offer entirely different experiences, but both are highly relaxing and rejuvenating. I say venture to both, but certainly don’t miss a traditional hammam if you want to experience local Moroccan culture. Don’t forget your sabon beldi (traditional black soap made from olives), rhasool (clay for full-body mask) and kiis (scrub glove for full-body exfoliation) – all of which can be purchased on the cheap from one of the many medina apothecaries. A small tub of sabon beldi should only set you back 5 dirham. Let this be a warning to you: hamman is addicting and once you start, you may not want to stop!