Coated in goop, slathered in mud and scrubbed till raw: what sounds like an unappealing adventure sport is actually a glorious Moroccan hammam treatment. Keeping your skin fresh and dewy this close to the Sahara requires extreme measures, and Berbers have been perfecting their beauty regimen for a millennium.
Moroccans visit the hammam not just to clean themselves, but to clear their minds, reconnect with loved ones and purify themselves before the important Friday prayers. The prophet Mohammed recommended the hammam for health, longevity and fertility, and it remains central to religious and cultural life in Morocco.
Hammams can be both private and public, although in the past only the wealthiest families could afford one at home. Along with the communal bakery, fountain, madrasa (religious school) and mosque, the public hammam is one of five traditional elements found in every neighbourhood of the Marrakech medina. Closely associated with the mandatory ablutions required before Muslim prayers, you’ll usually find them situated next to a mosque.
The ruins of the oldest Islamic hammam in Morocco can be found in Volubilis and date back to the 8th century, when the Arabs arrived. They are modelled on their Roman predecessors and most still consist of a similar three-room structure. There’s a hot room where bathers start by stimulating blood flow and opening up their pores; a warm room for scrubbing and masque treatments; and a cold room for relaxation and rehydration at the end.
There are no bathing pools in an Islamic hammam, as Muslims consider still water to be unclean. Instead, rooms are usually lined with taps where running water can be drawn (hence the need to bring a bucket or bowl to the public hammam). As a result, Moroccan hammams are hot and humid, rather than steamy. They are also bathed in a soft half-light that filters through small, glass windows in the domed roof.
Traditionally, the heat for the hammam was provided by the farnatchi, the man in charge of tending the fire beneath the bathhouse that heats its floors and walls. Women visit the farnatchi on their way to the hammam to deposit dishes to be cooked, such as the tangia (a traditional stew concocted in an amphora), which is then placed in the hammam fire to cook for hours.
All Moroccans, regardless of social class, visit the hammam once a week. The busiest days are Thursdays and Fridays, before Friday prayers. Attending the hammam is always a social activity for Moroccans, who go in family groups and spend at least two to three hours there. Typical of Islamic society, genders are segregated in different areas or scheduled separately.
In the past, when the hammam was one of the only places women were allowed to visit, this weekly ritual constituted a great moment of well-being and escape. Mothers might seek out future wives for their sons at the hammam, and even today it is the location of important rituals, such as the pre-wedding or post-pregnancy bath. Even the act of performing the scrub for one another is considered an expression of habibi (love).
Whether you check into a public hammam or the luxury Royal Mansour, the bathing ritual is the same. After a quick rinse, bathers head to the hottest room, where either you or an attendant will slather your skin with slippery savon noir (also called savon beldi), a black soap made with the oil and macerated pulp of black olives. This paste softens the skin and prepares it for exfoliation.
After relaxing in the hot room, bathers move to the warm room to rinse off the black soap and perform the exfoliating scrub. In public hammams, friends and family scrub each other, but if you are alone you can pay a bath attendant (tebbaya) for the service. For many people this can be an intimidating experience, given that everyone is naked except for their underwear, and the scrub covers every inch of your body, including breasts, under arms and inner thighs. It is performed with a kess (rough-textured glove) and is firm, even painful for some, as the aim is to remove dead skin. If the pressure is too much, say bshwiya (slower).
Many layers of dead skin later, you’re finally ready for a hydrating rhassoul masque. Rhassoul is a saponiferous clay found in the Middle Atlas, which is usually mixed with a range of aromatic plants (rose petals, cloves, eucalyptus, lichens and chamomile, for example). It is made into a liquid paste with water and applied to your body and hair. Rhassoul is rich in mineral salts and draws toxins to the surface of the skin, tightening pores and regulating the secretion of sebum. Once it is rinsed off, it is followed by an orange-flower water or lemon juice skin tonic.
It’s time to take your new baby-soft skin to the cold room, where you relax and rehydrate with some tea or water. In some hammams you can get a massage here, too. A typical one involves a thick coat of emollient argan oil, another unique Moroccan product rich in essential fatty acids that protect the skin from dehydration and sun damage.
At any community hammam, you’ll need your own bowl or bucket for scooping water, a plastic mat to sit on, savon noir (black soap), a scrubbing glove, flip-flops, a towel, your regular toiletries (shampoo, razor and so on) and a change of undies – you’ll be expected to wear yours during the treatment, so they’ll get wet.
Entry costs around 10–20 Moroccan dirhams (80p–£1.60) or 50 dirhams (£4) if you want a scrub (let them know at reception when you enter).
The 1572 Mouassine hammam is the oldest in Marrakech. Inside it is rather plain, with three rooms with ceramic tiled floors and walls lined with spigots and domed tadelakt (plastered) ceilings. Bathers sit on mats on the floor gossiping and scrubbing each other. Entrance costs 10 dirhams (80p) and the price of a gommage (scrub) and rhassoul masque is 150 dirhams (£12). If you’d like an additional application of henna the total cost is 200 dirhams (£16). You can also hire all the kit here.
This small local spa is situated just outside the medina, near the Jardin Majorelle. Inside, rooms are lined with modern tiles that mimic traditional zellij mosaics. Few people speak English here, but they are friendly and helpful to novices, and the treatments (150 dirhams or £12 for a scrub, masque, massage and tea) are well executed. You’ll need to bring a towel, but can pick up the soap and glove here.
Situated in the upscale neighbourhood of Mouassine, this hammam is theatrically decorated with richly coloured rooms and twinkling mosaic-tiled bathing areas fitted with central basins and showers. There are benches for scrubs and masque treatments. In addition to the traditional hammam, they offer beauty treatments such as rose facial masks, hot-stone massages and pedicures. Hammam options range from 250 to 450 dirhams (£20 to £36). Pre-booking is advised.
Recently renovated, this popular spa hammam is situated in the Kasbah neighbourhood. It has an oriental vibe with intricately carved stucco interiors, hand-cut brass lanterns and stained-glass windows. It offers couples treatment rooms and hammams alongside other larger bathing areas, a central swimming pool and a relaxation room. Hammam treatments typically last 45 minutes and cost 220 to 450 dirhams (£18 to £36). Pre-booking is advised.
This day spa is part of a hotel and occupies the whole of a historic riad (courtyard house). Its gorgeous central patio is trimmed with creamy stucco work and graphic black-and-white zellij tiling. There are two hammams lined with marble benches where you sit or lie while the tebbaya performs the scrub. Most bathers follow up with a massage. Masseuse Ahmed Bihssa is one of the best in the business, a sensitive therapist who tailors treatments to iron out knotty tension spots using heady essential oils from Nectarome and ila Spa. Hammam treatments cost 350 to 550 dirhams (£28 to £44). Pre-booking is essential.
This is a beautiful spa occupying a historic riad connected to the adjacent guest house by a secret mirror door. Manager Arkia el Baz previously worked at the Royal Mansour and her deep knowledge, professional manner and gentle personality are reflected in the expert massages and calm atmosphere. There are two hammams, each large enough for a couple, and upstairs treatment rooms where treatments use fragrant organic oils from Moroccan brand Nectarome. Hammam treatments cost 500 to 600 dirhams (£40 to £48), and involve a foot bath, black soap scrub and two different rhassoul wraps. Pre-booking is essential.
The finest hammam in Marrakech is located in the Royal Mansour. Although it represents the height of luxury, the Mansour’s hammam treatment is also thoroughly authentic: bathers lie on the warm marble floor and are doused with water from hand-engraved silver buckets. The products are the best Morocco has to offer, from the marocMaroc range. The signature rhassoul scrub includes rose, basil, chamomile, eucalyptus, lichen, lavender and argan powder. There are various treatments and masques on offer depending on skin type, all of which cost between 1,400 and 3,200 dirhams (£113 and £258). Pre-booking is essential.
The spa at the Four Seasons is located in its own building and has its own relaxation gardens. As with a traditional hammam, men and women have their own bathing areas, including a sauna, steam and hammam room, ending at a circular cold plunge pool. There’s also a Jacuzzi pool, a private hammam suite and 15 treatment rooms, one of which is for couples. The decor is gorgeous and the staff are consummate professionals. Try the Escape Hammam, which includes a honey and amber scrub for 1,000 dirhams (£80).