Cultural Encounters; Hammams in Morocco

You will find public hammams in almost every town in Morocco, and in every neighborhood in the cities. Your hotel reception desk will know where to find a local hammam. Taxi drivers, waiters and people in the street will also be happy to give you directions.

The larger hammams have separate bathing rooms (and entrances) for men and women, some exclusively serve either gender. A third category have days of the week for men, and other days for women, or certain hours for men and others for women. You will not find “mixed” public hammams anywhere in Morocco.

A public hammam in the Fez Medina

Quite a few upmarket hotels and riads offer private hammams to their guests. Some also allow non-guests to use their baths. While these private hammams are usually more elaborate and luxurious, they also tend to be much more expensive than public bathhouses. Some hotels and riads allow people from both genders to bathe together. Ask about their policy before you book.

What to bring to a hammam

Moroccans take the following toiletries to the bathhouse:

  • soap,
  • shampoo,
  • scrub glove,
  • towel,
  • small, jug-style plastic bucket to pour water over your body,
  • swimsuit or extra underwear
  • shaving cream and razor.

Hammams usually sell travel-size bottles of shampoo and soap. When available, buy “sabon beldi,” a unique black olive oil soap. You will find this easily in the souks.  Also ask if they sell “ghasoul” or “rhassoul“, a lava clay that is used to scrub the skin.

sabon beldi
rhassoul

Kiis (scrub glove):  Part of the bath ritual is getting scrubbed down by the hammam attendant or by a friend – all depends on whether you have a friend who will scrub your back for you (everyone scrubs each other in the bathhouse – another cultural thing that would normally be out of place in Western culture). A “kiis” (not “kiss”) costs about 10 to 15 dirham /1.00 to 1.50€ for a really good one in the souks  Scrub gloves and the small plastic buckets are available at souks (markets) and épiceries (drugstores). They both cost no more than around 10 dirham.Sabon beldi and rhassoul are also widely available in shops.
You can also rent towels for a few dirham at the front desk.

Hammam layout

When you enter a hammam, you pay the man at the front desk the entry fee and continue to the changing room. Here, you change into a swim There is usually no locker-type storage available, but staff will keep an eye on your belongings. It’s very rare for clothing or shoes to be stolen from a hammam, but you should not bring valuable items to a bathhouse.
The changing room often doubles as a place for people to rest after their bath. A lot of hammams serve coffee or tea in this room. So while changing, you will be surrounded by other guests. Be careful to wrap a towel around your waist as you change – full-frontal nudity is offensive.
Beyond the changing room are three areas separated by walls and connected by small openings in these walls. The first room is cool, the second room is warm and the third room is steaming hot.

The hammam ritual

After changing, the usual path through a hammam is:

    • (1) Warm room
      Here, you get your body accustomed to the heat in the hammam and fill two of the many available large buckets, one with cold water and one with warm water.

      You use some of the water to clean the floor of the space you’ll be sitting on. Then you wash a first time, but just superficially, to get rid of the basic dirt on your skin and in your hair.

    • (2) Hot room
      The heat in the hot room allows your pores to open wide and let your sweat out. This brings all the dirt out that’s hidden in your pores and does wonders for your skin.

      How much time you spend in this room, depends on your tolerance for heat. You can use the water in your buckets to refresh from time to time, although most Moroccans leave their buckets in the warm room.

    • (3) Warm room
      You return to the warm room for a more thorough washing. This is when you soap in completely, using the water from one bucket in the process. A fellow bather may offer to wash your back for you. This is a courtesy, don’t misinterpret it for anything else.
      After you wash your skin and hair, you use the water from the second bucket to rinse the soap and dirt off your body.
      When your bath is done, you carefully empty the remaining water from your buckets along the walls of the warm room.
    • (4) Cold room
      After your bath, you step into the cold room. Many hammams have communal showers in this room, so you can rinse the last remaining dirt and sweat off your body. There are also benches in this room where you can relax for a while and let your body get used to normal temperatures again.
Getting a massage

Many hammams, but by far not all, have staff who can massage you. The more upscale (often private) hammams use scented oils for this. Here, you can also choose to be washed by staff. Such a “gommage” often involves rich olive oil soap and is a real treat.

Visitor, Michael Palin having a massage in Fez

In the more basic, public hammams, a fellow bather may offer to massage you. There’s nothing suspicious about such an offer. It’s a very kind gesture, usually without financial motives, although returning the favor is somewhat expected.
People with a bad back or other ailments would be wise to abstain from a massage. Even at the hand of a professional, a massage can be quite painful, although afterwards you’ll feel as new.
Getting a massage is always an option, never compulsory.

Hammam etiquette

There are a couple of things that you can do to upset Moroccans in a hammam. Wasting water is one of them. Water is scarce in Morocco and splashing it around in large quantities is considered imprudent and rude. Only use as much water as you need to wash and rinse.
Even more seriously offensive is stripping completely naked in a hammam. There are no exceptions in men’s bathhouses, but in some women’s hammams people have reported Moroccan women going complete naked. Still, women tourists should only bare all when they see Moroccans doing it. As a general rule keep panties on! (take a spare dry pair to change into afterwards).
Although hammams are basically for hygiene, they also have an important social function. This is especially true for more “traditional” women, who rarely leave their house except for a visit to the hammam. People like to chat in hammams, discussing the latest news and gossip.
As a tourist, you may be quite an event in a public hammam. You will receive a lot of attention. Enjoy your special status – a hammam is a great place to get to know Moroccans. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited over for drinks or dinner.

How much a hammam costs

A bath in a public hammam usually costs around 5 or 10 dirham . Towels, soap and other toiletries are available for a couple of dirhams.
If you take a massage from one of the staff in a public hammam, you are expected to tip him 10 or 15 dirham .
As you leave the bathhouse, it’s custom to tip the front desk attendant one or two dirham.
Hammams in hotels and riads ask up to 300 to 500 dirham for a hammam experience. Expect to pay another few hundred dirham for a massage.

If you are hesitant to dive into the world of a traditional hammam, then investigate the more expensive hotel/resort spas.

Part of the Nausikaa hammam
The hammam at Riad Laaroussa

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