By Stacey Siebritz
The story of the hammam is an ancient one, and is reportedly rooted in the ancient Roman bathing ritual. After observing the Roman baths of Syria in 630 AD, the prophet Mohammed apparently recommended “sweat baths” to his followers. As Islam grew, so did the hammam ritual, eventually spreading to towns throughout Iran, Turkey, and North Africa. Most formed a sort of annex to the local mosque and were held to the hygienic standards of the religion.
Much like the Roman baths before them, hammams became both a place of rest as well as an important social site in early Muslim culture, for women, who were often discouraged from socialising outside the home. Decidedly less decadent than their Roman predecessors, the first hammams were composed of three chambers with domed white roofs, which helped trap steam. Heated from the floor, each had hot and cold water for washing, and attendants present for massage and exfoliation treatments. Scent was always an important part of the experience: attendants were forbidden to consume garlic for its strong odour, and would rub their hands with fragrant pomegranate peel before treating clients.
Today, modern spas all over the world have taken inspiration from this tradition, transforming it into a pampering experience. At Tips and Toes Spa in Dubai, a tranquil haven in the heart of the city, the Turkish hammam is a 90-minute treatment where you put yourself completely in the care of your therapist or ‘natir’ (hammam attendant) and surrender to the cleansing ritual.
The hammam area is a dimly-lit private room tiled in stylish mosaics where, after stripping down to your spa undies, the process begins in a rush of warm steam and hot water. As the therapist washes you, the trickle of the shower teases the knots out of your muscles before you’re laid down on a heated stone slab called a gobek tasi, designed to raise your body temperature and boost circulation.
Indeed, apart from cleansing the body, hammam experiences help relieve stress, relax muscles, ease respiratory problems, rid the body of toxins and stimulate circulation. The treatment also deeply cleanses the skin, improving its tone and texture. Visiting hammams can even promote weight loss, increase muscle mass, and raise energy levels and mental clarity.
What happens next is perhaps the most well known and therapeutic aspects of the ritual – the scrub itself. Anyone who has experienced a traditional hammam will know that no inch of the skin is left unpolished. Using a coarse loofah, the therapist performs a thorough scrub, paying meticulous attention to places where the skin is typically rougher, such as the knees, elbows and feet. The rhythmic strokes of the scrub, along with the action of sloughing away the grime of the day, feels incredibly therapeutic – symbolic, even, of leaving your worries behind.
The next step is the foam massage. Traditionally, olive soap is used with a lacy cloth to create a rich lather that feels incredibly soothing as it’s swept across your tingling, freshly scrubbed skin. The massage is performed with long, hypnotic strokes designed to knead the last of your tension into submission. Finally, the soap is rinsed off, and a rich oil is rubbed into your skin to keep it soft and glowing.
Finally, the hammam experience is rounded off as serenely as possible: sipping tea, and cooling down. Personally, I pondered on the notion of how, despite the proliferation of chemical creams and surgical treatments, a tradition passed down through the centuries that uses the most basic of nature’s gifts–water, heat and a sponge– is not only extremely effective, but it feels like the perfect complement to stressful modern life.
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