The Morrocan hammam is similar to a Turkish bath, the difference is the air. The Turkish bath starts with relaxation in a room (known as the warm room) that is heated by a continuous flow of hot, dry air, allowing the bather to perspire freely.
The difference in the Islamic Hammam is the air is often steamy. The bather in a Turkish bath will often take a plunge in a cold pool after the hot rooms; the Islamic hammam usually does not have a pool unless the water is flowing from a spring. The public hammam is still a major part of the culture, as much a place about cleansing as it is about relaxing.
Female and male sections are separated in traditional hammams. Yet the bathing rituals are similar between the sexes. The larger hammams have separate bathing rooms (and entrances) for men and women, some exclusively serve either gender. A third category has 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. The hammam experience is about leaving yourself in the hands of your tellak or natir, the male or female attendants respectively, who guide visitors through the progressively warmer sections of the bath.
There are a number of different services on offer in most hammans, and you have to sort this out at the beginning. A traditional bath package includes 45 minutes of washing; traditional body scrubbing with handwoven washcloth known as a Kiis (scrub glove); a foam wash; and a massage. Hammams usually sell travel-size bottles of shampoo and soap. When available, buy “Sabon beldi,” a unique black olive oil soap. The attendants usually provide visitors with a thin cotton towel to wrap yourself and a regular towel to use after bathing. 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 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 as 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.
Following this rejuvenating experience, most linger in the bath area and relax. The hot section is the most impressive part: It is usually designed so that rays of light filtered into this area from a high central dome, illuminating the steam and creating an otherworldly feeling. Back in the cold section, many hammams will serve visitors a glass of sherbet, Ottoman-style juice, or a cup of tea. The idea here is to spend a few minutes allowing your body to come back to its regular temperature. It’s also a time to tip your attendants, which is normal in the Hamman.
These photographs show the process of providing the hot air. The oven/furnace is constantly fuelled with wood chips/cuttings from the cedar tree, a wood whose pungent resins fill the air with aromatic odours. This is converted into steam, and the man in the photos sits here for 12-14 hours a day, filling and kindling regularly, usually for a pittance in renumeration. Some things never change!!