The Sacred & Sweaty Hammam
By Margie Goldsmith
Inside a hot, but not too steamy, hammam room in the Moroccan countryside, three naked Berber women are sitting on the heated stone floor, talking to each other. One of them empties a recycled Goodyear Tire bucket on her long black hair. The second woman takes the empty bucket, walks barefoot to a hot and cold water tap, fills the bucket, and rinses the hair of her friend. The third woman, unable to stop her two-year-old son from crying, picks him up and places him down gently in her bucket, filled to the top with lukewarm water. Delighted, the little boy splashes at the water and makes cooing sounds.
This scenario and others like it, take place weekly in every village and city of Morocco and other Islamic countries. Known as a hammam, these locales are a series of at least two large heated rooms that collectively serve as a steam room, as well as a place to wash, exfoliate, and commune with neighbors. Of all the treatments, which smooth away the daily stresses of life, the Moroccan hammam is said to be one of the oldest and most effective.
After soaking in warmth and steam, the bather uses special soaps and oils to cleanse the body, draw out toxins, and soothe the skin. Traditionally the hammam was a communal bathing experience, and in many parts of the world it still serves that function; but it is also an excellent way to melt away worries, stress, and tension while relaxing in a cocoon of warmth.
The word hammam is an Arabic word meaning 'spreader of warmth' The ritual goes back thousands of years to the Romans and Greeks who developed the communal bath as a social institution. Around 630 A.D., Mohammed recommended 'sweat' baths, marking the beginning of the Islamic hammam. "Mohammed believed that the heat of the hammam enhanced fertility, and that the followers of faith should multiply. With this new religious significance, the hammam became an annex to the mosque, complying with Islamic laws of hygiene and purification," says Mikkel Aaland in his book, Sweat (Capra, 1978). As the Islamic faith spread, so did the hammam. Like the Roman baths, it became a place to socialize. "Daily lives revolved around these bathhouses," says Carol Fajht, spa director at Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa in Muscat, Oman. A story in Scheherazade's A Thousand and One Nights shows exactly how natural a visit to the hammam was: 'Come let us walk about and take our solace in the city and visit the hammam.'
When Mohammed first advocated the hammam, women were forbidden; but because women had no place to socialize with other women, eventually they were permitted to bathe at specific hours. "The hammam became so important to Moslem women that if the husband denied his wife visits, she had grounds for divorce," says Aaland. In Morocco today, even in the Berber countryside, where men ride donkeys and women scrub their clothes in the river, each village has a hammam. To this day, there are still different hours for men and women, but its purpose remains the same: a communal bath, social institution, weekly health therapy, and in many cultures, as a treatment for medical conditions.
The medical benefits of the hammam date back to 200 B.C. when the father of medicine, Hippocrates, said, "Give me the power to create a fever and I shall cure any disease." Steam was the answer, because it raises the body temperature above normal, and stimulates the immune system to increase production of antibodies and interferon. "This traditional steam experience allows the body to absorb heat, which stimulates the immune system and results in a total well-being experience," says Auxiliadora Velzquez, director of Thermae Spa at Hotel Villa Padierna in Marbella, Spain. "The benefits of hammam use include pain relief, muscle relaxation, and respiratory benefits; the hammam efficiently releases toxins from the body and provides a powerful combination with massage." It's no wonder that after centuries of use, hammams have taken on the unofficial name, silent doctor.
"Hammams are being rediscovered," says Alexia Brue, author of Cathedrals of the Flesh: My Search for the Perfect Bath (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004). "Most of us can't afford to go to a spa every week, but we can afford to go to a hammam." While different cultures have their own variation on the hammam, the basic principals are the same from Morocco and Spain to Turkey and Tunisia. Spa expert Jonathan P. DeVierville contends, "Hammams are catching on because the spa culture in America is slowly but surely deepening, and water is regenerative." Therapists know that nothing relaxes the muscles better than steam and heat. "When you think about the fact that people are just beginning to discover Ayurvedic treatments, which are thousands of years old, you can understand that it takes time for ancient therapies to catch on and be comfortable and not intimidating," says spa consultant Amy McDonald. "It's expensive to build a real hammam, which is about the room itself and not the products. And even though many spas are offering exfoliating treatments and special oils and soaps, at the end of the day, the hammam is about the heart and the steam of that room."
A traditional hammam is composed of three chambers with domed white roofs (a dome holds in the condensation of steam). Visitors first enter a small room to disrobe, and then move into the first of the steam rooms. These rooms are heated from the floor and contain taps of hot and cold water as well as buckets for dousing. While the physical appearance of a hammam may differ from place to place, the treatment is basically the same: either the visitor cleanses and exfoliates her own skin or an attendant can be hired to do the scrubbing, rubbing, and buffing.
Kasbah Tamadot, Sir Richard Branson's luxury resort outside of Marrakech, Morocco, offers a brand new version of the traditional hammam: a heated marble room half the size of a tennis court with a huge domed roof where little lights built into the ceiling look like twinkling stars. Heated marble benches line the walls of the room and in one corner a large sink provides hot and cold running water. The treatment begins as the guest, wrapped in a fluffy terry cloth towel, is led into the warm but not too hot or steamy room.
The attendant directs you to sit on a heated marble bench as she fills a pail with warm water and then cleanses your skin with traditional Berber soap, Argon. The soap is made from black olives and eucalyptus oil, which helps open the sinus cavities and nasal passages. Argon is also rich in vitamin E and is indispensable in preparing the skin for exfoliation. Next, using a special scrubbing mitt, the attendant sloughs off dead skin and bacteria and opens your pores to stimulate the lymph and circulatory systems. She then rinses your body with bucket upon bucket of warm water. Ghassoul, a local mineral clay extracted from the nearby Atlas Mountains, is then applied. It is left on your skin a few minutes, then rinsed off. Ghassoul hydrates the skin and leaves it soft and shiny. Every hammam has a place to relax, but at Kasbah Tamadot, guests are escorted from the hammam, wrapped in soft terry robes, and led to comfortable day beds to rest. Some even fall asleep before the attendant returns with a cup of herbal infused tea.
When it comes to relaxation and well-being, there are few treatments in the world as effective as the healing properties, warmth, and steam of a traditional hammam. The next time you choose a spa, you might want to consider one that offers the â€œsilent doctorâ€ hammam experience.
WHERE TO FIND GENUINE HAMMAMS
(800) 225-4255, www.virgin.com/kasbah
Vila Sol Spa & Golf Resort
+351 289 320 320, www.vilasol.pt
Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa
(866) 565-5050, www.shangri-la.com/muscat
Hotel Villa Padierna
+34 952 889 150, www.hotelvillapadierna.com
PLACES TO FIND HAMMAM-INSPIRED TREATMENTS
Turkish Hammam Rub & Scrub
The Standard Hotel, Miami, FL
(305) 704-3943, www.standardhotel.com
Thermal Sanctuary Experience
Mayflower Inn & Spa, Washington, CT
(860) 868-9466, www.mayflowerinn.com
The Osthoff Resort, Elkhart Lake, WI
(800) 876-3399, www.osthoff.com
Desert Springs JW Marriott
Palm Desert, CA
(760) 341-2211, www.desertspringsresort.com
Red Flower Hammam
VH Spa at Hotel Valley Ho, Scottsdale, AZ
(480) 248-2000, www.hotelvalleyho.com
Ojai Valley Inn, Ojai, CA
(805) 640-2080, www.ojairesort.com
Hamam Fully Loaded
Ten Spa, Fort Garry Hotel, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
(866) 585-0772, www.tenspa.ca
Miraval Life in Balance, Catalina, AZ
(520) 825-5150, www.miravalresort.com