Introduction – What is a Hammam?
A Hammam (Turkish: hamam, Arabic الحمام, ḥammām) is a type of bathhouse. The basic purpose of a Hammam is to clean you up although it also highly focused on relaxation and comfort, including massages, full body scrubs and general socializing.
The more touristy versions are more expensive, have staff hired to take care of you, are generally more private, and function much more as a modern spa while the public ones are cheaper and there is very little staff – the visitors help each other. It’s the public type me and my friend Nikolaj visited on a visit to Tangier in Morocco.
Hammans can be found in several countries around the Mediterranean and have roots back to the Roman Tradition. There are many variations of this type of bathhouse and they can be found in countries such as Turkey (also known as Turkish bath), Egypt, Cyprus and Syria. One of the main differences between the Victorian Turkish Bath and the Islamic Hammam found in countries such as Morocco, is the water and air – in Turkey it’s dry air and the bather will typically plunge into a cold pool while in Morocco the air will be steamy and there will be no pool but instead cold water is poured on you (using buckets or the like).
So how did we get the idea of visiting a Hammam? Anyone that have read the Trans Siberian Railroad series here on this blog will know that my travel companion Nikolaj and I are quite the bathhouse lovers. In Russia they were called Banya’s and if you want to know their particular style, I’ve described one such Banya here. Obviously we wouldn’t pass on the opportunity to visit another bathhouse; although different, most likely just as pleasant. At the same time this post serves as encouragement anyone reading this to go and find the nearest Hammam and just get into it – it’s fantastic.
How to prepare and what to expect when going to a public Hammam
Going to a hotel Hammam or similar tourist/private Hammam is easy. Just bring your bathing clothes and some money – the rest is taken care of. Going to a public Hammam requires a small bit of preparation but is still quite manageable.
First problem is to find a local bathhouse and in our case we asked the hostess at our hostel where to go. Besides being convenient it also serves as atleast somewhat of a guarantee that we are not being cheated – she told us what prices to expect and where to go. In Russia we even had a local guy go with us – he overheard us talking about the Banya with the hostess and offered to join. Another opportunity would be to consult the internet which, however, typically has the (dis)advantage of taking you to the larger mainstream bathhouses.
You need a towel and bathing clothes. The locals typically have a body scrub glove, some soap and whatever they need to wash themselves. You can buy that at a market or usually you can just borrow it when you get there.
When inside you go through these phases
- Change of clothes, payment to the front desk.
- Warm room with warm water to get used to the heat. Here you do initial washing
- Hot room with fairly hot water. You wash down completely in here
- Cold room. This is where you finish before you exit
- Change of clothes, tip any local staff that helped you
When you get there you have to make sure that it’s time for the men to use the Hammam. Under no circumstances do men and women bath at the same time, so if the front desk guy starts yelling at you when you walk in – it’s probably because you are there at the wrong time. I suggest you say sorry, look confused and point at the watch. With any luck he won’t get mad but instead manage to communicate to you when to come back.
When inside the Hammam
When inside, pay the man, and start changing clothes. Remember: NO full frontal nudity under any circumstances, so cover yourself up with a towel. When done, grab your towel (and scrub glove/soap whatever you have with you). We didn’t have anything but a towel and a local guy (staff) there helped us point to where to go and what to do so don’t worry if you are feeling confused 🙂
When we got in he washed the floor in a corner and pointed at it – he also filled a couple of buckets with warm water. We were supposed to sit down on the clean spot and do some initial washing. We used the buckets and washed ourselves (no soap as we didn’t have any) – without wasting too much water! Water can be sparse in Morocco so be mindful of not splashing around too much. After a while another guy came in and did the same. He asked us (without using words as we didn’t understand him) to wash him and Nikolaj used the locals own soap and body scrub glove to wash him down. In these Hammam’s it’s common to help each other and it is no way a sexual thing. It’s simply practical. Some people also ask or give massages. Don’t be surprised if they ask for you to return the favor or return the favor themselves.
This Hammam was small and few people were here, so the warm room and the hot room was the same. As we entered, the room wasn’t that hot but he turned up the heat and after a while buckets of steaming hot water was ready – slowly turning the warm room into a very hot room. An adjacent room that started out as a cold room became warm and late arrivals used that room as a warm room.
After a while the local staff guy that initially helped us in the beginning came back and, without word, started washing Nikolaj. With a confused look, I observed the ritual but when he was done with Nikolaj he started washing me down too. He scrubbed my back and front and soaped me in and then finally he rinsed off the soap using the buckets of water.
When we were done our skins softer than they have been for a long long time and we changed into our normal clothes. The guy that washed us, made it very clear that we should tip him and so we did. We tipped 100 dirham between the two of us but I believe that is too much. None the less, about $9 for two full scrubs is not bad.
In conclusion: do it!