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Public Steam Baths (Hammam) in Morocco and Tunisia

The Hammam (Public Bathhouse)

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Le Hammam, painting by Othman Khadraoui

Le Hammam, painting by Othman Khadraoui

© Anouk Zijlma
The hammam is a public steam bath, very popular in North Africa, particularly Morocco and Tunisia. Hammams used to be the only place people could come to bathe and scrub, since a private bathroom in a house or apartment was a luxury few could afford. There are fewer hammams now since modern plumbing means people can bathe in their own homes. But taking a public bath is still very much part of the culture in Tunisia and Morocco. Getting a good scrub at a local hammam is a wonderful, eye-opening cultural experience. It offers women travelers in particular a good chance to meet and chat with local women.

How do you find a Hammam?

Hammams can be found in almost every Moroccan and Tunisian town. The ones with the most character are in the old medinas, check them out in Tunis, Marrakech and Fes.

Hammams are often located near mosques since it is customary for Muslims to wash themselves before they pray. Ask any local person for the closest hammam. The hotel staff as well as tourist offices will be able to tell you where to go. Make sure they write the name of the hammam down in Arabic, it'll be easier to find that way.

Some upscale Riads in Morocco and Dar's in Tunisia have their own hammams, but these are not quite the same as a public hammam. The upscale hammams will offer a more western style experience, with a massage table and soothing scents. The local hammam is a bath house with absolutely no frills. They're a little dark, tiles are often broken and missing, there will be a lot of dead skin and hair floating around. But if you follow the rules, they're fantastic places and you'll leave cleaner than you've ever been in your life.

What should you bring to a Hammam?

Hammams are either totally separate for women and men, or they will divide their opening times between the sexes. Men's hours are usually in the morning and evening, women go in the afternoon. This means that the dress code in the hammam, for both men and women, is underwear (or shorts) only. If you're not comfortable seeing naked flesh of your own sex, then the public hammam is not for you. Women do not keep their bras on in the hammam.

In general you'll want to bring the following to a public hammam and part of the fun is shopping for some of these in the medina before you go:

  • Spare underwear (since you'll get one pair soaked) or shorts for men.
  • Towel
  • Shampoo or buy ghassoul in Morocco, a type of mud used for washing hair.
  • Razors - (North African women do commonly shave their legs, armpits etc)
  • Flip flops or slippers (you haven't worn on the streets)
  • Soap, buy some traditional black soap in Morocco. It's black and gooey, you'll see it for sale in the medinas, it's made from olive resin. It's fantastic stuff, but will sting like crazy if you get it in your eyes.
  • Scrubbing mitt, or loofah (unless you opt for the in house service, see below). In Tunisia the mitt is called kassa, in Morocco it's called kiis.
  • Bottle of water to drink
  • Mat or stool to sit on is optional
  • Sense of humor
  • A few words of Arabic (not a lot of French is spoken in Hammams)

What to do once inside a Hammam?

  • First you pay at the entrance, the cost is minimal. Opt to pay for a "massage", this is part of the experience and will only cost you a little extra.

  • Leave your valuables with the person at the front. You'll be shown an area where you get undressed and where you can leave your clothes.

  • Watch to see what people are doing once you enter the steamy bath area. You'll usually get two buckets and a bowl (or an old can) to use. One bucket is for cold water, the other for hot. Some hammams will have an attendant to fill these up for you, but normally it's self-service.

  • Find a spot where its hot, sit in the steam a little, and get relaxed. Your eyes will have to get used to the light, hammams are often quite dark. The noise level is significant as gossip is rife and nicely echoed around the domed ceilings of the hammam. If you're a woman, there will be children getting scrubbed, children crying and mothers yelling.

  • Once you get your bearings, it's time to get your bucket of water to the right temperature and begin to scrub, shave, and soap yourself.

  • The "massage" or scrub down will begin in earnest as one of the attendants yells something in Arabic to you and motions for you to take a seat on a slab of stone in the center of the hammam. Wearing an abrasive mitt, your skin will be scrubbed raw without any patch left undone. Watch in amazement as your dead skin is shed and marvel in disbelief at how you could ever have let yourself get so dirty. Any scab you may have will be scrubbed off, so bring some band aids with you. I left my last hammam in Tunis bleeding unattractively from some old scratches on my face.

  • Some hammams will have separate areas where you can shave and shampoo. Watch what the others do since the dirty water with dead skin and hair usually flows in one direction, and you don't want be sitting downstream of other peoples dirt. Always use your can or bowl to scoop clean water on to yourself.

  • If you need to use the bathroom, do so before you get your dry clothes on. The toilets will usually be the squatting kind, and you'll want to rinse off before you get dry.

  • There is no restriction on the amount of buckets of water you can use, be as liberal as you want to be.

  • Once you've finished washing yourself, head back to your dry clothes and take your time getting dressed. People will often sit for a while so their hair can dry. Some hammams sell sodas and water, so this is a good opportunity to rehydrate.

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