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Hammam: The Outstanding Traditional Bathing Method in North Africa

posted on: Sep 7, 2022

Hammam: The Outstanding Traditional Bathing Method in North Africa
Hammam in Marrakech, Morocco –Photo

By: Mariem Hamdi/ Arab America contributing writer

When you walk across each of the North African neighborhoods, particularly in the old cities you will find one spot or two designed for Hammam (or Islamic bath-houses), it is a tradition similar to a steam bath or sauna and is representative of the Byzantine and Roman baths. It is a place that holds culture.

Hammams are important for promoting hygiene and public health, but they also served as gathering places for people to rest and socialize. The Hammam originally goes back to when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople (Istanbul today) from the Romans in 1450, they brought their own bathing practices with them. The Turk Ottomans quickly discovered Roman bathing customs and incorporated them into their own. As a result, a completely new purification ritual based on Islamic criteria and ordinances was developed. Hot bathing and sweating were suggested by Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) as divine and holy ways of healing.

The architecture includes a consistent succession of rooms that guests access in the same order. The undressing or changing room is first, followed by the cold room, the warm room, and ultimately the hot room. These are the primary Hammam rooms. The rooms have domed or vaulted ceilings that provide customers with a glimpse of the city skyline. The domes of the steam and hot rooms are punctured with skylights or tiny apertures. These holes have two purposes: one, they supply natural illumination during the day, and two, they allow excess steam to escape from the chamber. The walls and ceilings are made of steam-resistant materials such as marble or varnished plaster. The changing room or vestibule is frequently one of the most ornamented areas in the entire complex. It frequently has a central fountain and seating.

The Ottoman baths’ changing rooms were constructed with multi-level wooden arcades that led guests to smaller changing rooms. Within the facility, toilets were constructed. However, each civilization has implemented its roots when it comes to designing and providing services. Morocco, for instance, has separate rooms designated for men and women to bathe, on the other hand, Tunisia has only one room and schedules when customers are supposed to come, which varies for each local region.

Thus, these countries share the same bath procedure, which consists of the first step is entering a Hammam and undressing in the changing area. Most Hammams require guests to cover the lower half of their body with a loincloth. (a silk or cotton towel to wrap around the body).

Hammam: The Outstanding Traditional Bathing Method in North Africa
Regulating the water temperature by mixing the hot and cold water using different buckets –Photo

By moving from the cooler room to the hot room, there are many areas, such as heated marble platforms and water basins. After 10 minutes or more of heating and sweating in the hot chamber, an attendant (of the same gender as the tourist) arrives to help wash and scrub the body. The attendant arrives prepared with soap and “kessa” (an exfoliating glove for the skin) for a rigorous cleansing session. Following the scrubbing, it comes the last step that has to be done individually which is washing the hair and using bath soap.

Moreover, Hammam is a place for celebrations and weddings, the bride would go for her wedding preparations and bring along her beloved ones to dance to traditional music and eat authentic sweets.

Another important thing is that the Hammam has also fixed running water infrastructure installation in poor neighborhoods, in addition to the health benefits, the Hammam is proven to be an Immune system booster. The heated steam used in Hammam dilates blood vessels and promotes circulation in the body, opening pores to allow toxins to be readily expelled and renewing the body. 

Hot steam does wonders for fatigued, hurting muscles and once done, stimulates deep sleep, a mix of invigoration and repose. The rigorous washing and massaging you receive during Hammam causes your body to experience a significant increase in blood flow, stimulating and waking the senses. It also promotes profound relaxation and tranquillity, relaxing both the mind and the body. Intense heat and steam, as well as hands-on therapy via scrubbing and massage, leave you feeling thoroughly rejuvenated and that is what inspires the idea of Spa nowadays. Modern Hammams now provide spa services from different cultures, such as tailored hair treatments and facials; bringing in the new and old to bathing. 

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