Say Yes to Soaked and Slathered! Morocco Hammam.

During a recent spa afternoon with my dearest friend and her visiting daughter, we chatted about about Hammams in Turkey and Morocco. I laughingly explained that there are no similarities in a U.S. Spa procedure compared to a Hammam in Morocco or Turkey.

My first Hammam Istanbul

When visiting Morocco, there are several Must Do’s: try tajine, haggle with a souk vendor, visit a hammam! Scrubbing by a stranger is an enlightening experience.

My first scrub was in the oldest public Hammam in Istanbul, where the female attendants in black underwear spoke no English – nor do I speak Turkish. Led by hand, like a child, the guest is often required to wear totally useless paper undies. A massive round heated marble slab covered with other paper panty clothed women is the first step, washed with buckets of warm bubbly water, we then gingerly sloshed across the marble floor to small private room, watery light emanated from sapphire glass in the domed ceiling. Deep steaming before the vigorous body scrub. A question in Turkish, I nodded yes, the response: a brass bucket of water hurled at my head! Waterboarding was my first thought, no, merely hair wash.

Marble is the key building component in these glorious ancient bathing palaces, I am always in awe, no matter the city.

The Hammam is one of the most ancient wellness rituals in the world.  For centuries in Arabia, the ritual was propagated by the Turks. When the Ottomans discovered Roman bath habits and combined these with their own, a whole new divinely purifying ritual emerged.

The process is similar in Morocco, I am a dedicated hammam junkie – every six days, I willingly let a stranger scrub me spotless, polish my skin and wash my hair by tossing a bucket of water at me. A practiced Hammam expert, I now know when the water bombardment treatment begins. The language complications are still widespread, Madame Like? Is Good?

In the old cities of Morocco, every public square has five things: a Koran school for children, a Mosque, a communal oven, a public fountain and a hammam. Public baths or hammams are an important ritual. Old Hammams in Morocco consists of a similar 3 room structure and offer a similar bathing procedure as the Turkish Hammam. Located near a mosque, they facilitate the purification of body and soul before prayers.

A five-star hotel, of course, offers an utterly luxurious experience! Marble palaces oozing opulence, dreamlike brass lanterns splash light patterns across marble or intricate tiled walls, scented steam, and a reverential hush create an intimate sanctuary devoted to your senses. Hammam is a fully immersive traditional treatment at most hotels. Just nod Yes!

In Marrakech, our exceptional guide took me to the oldest Hammam in Marrakech, Hammam Mouassine, built in 1562. Walking underground, he introduced me to the men who feed a hot fire all day and night to heat the huge water cauldrons which produce the steam in the hammam! I love that technology has not replaced these men; if you know where to look, ancient culture is still in place in many locales.  In the medina, a heap of wood and fragrant smoke usually leads to a community oven or here, to the underground caldron in the oldest hammam. Astonishing – a modern city which treasures its culture and history.

La Sultana Hammam

Customarily, the heat for the Moroccan hammam is provided by the farnatchi, the man in charge of tending the fire beneath the bathhouse that heats its floors and walls.  Women would bring a ceramic urn known as a tanjia of a beef stew to cook outside the fire all day – one of these pots was resting at the edge of the stove. Tanjia is the name of both the stew and the ceramic urn it’s cooked in.

You don’t need to drag the tubs of black scrubbing soap home, it’s available online! Elbahya Moroccan Black Soap for Hammam. With Eucalyptus and Olive Moroccan black soap also known as hammam beldi soap have been used for centuries to clean and nourish skin with vitamins and minerals. Made with olive oil and olive paste, this soap is extremely rich in vitamin-e it is a great moisturizer and emollient.

An ancient ritual as integral to Moroccan life as mint tea and tajine. Every Saturday is scrub day in my shower!

Istanbul – Grand Bazaar Exquisite Ancient Calligraphy

Istanbul shops are brimming with exotic crafts, textiles, carpets, jewelry and more. The Grand Bazaar is the most renowned destination in the Imperial City. A maze of 61 covered streets, connecting over 4000 shops under a red tile rooftop. We have access to that red tile roof top if you would like to see where James Bond Hero, Daniel Craig, chased the henchman on a motorcycle in Sky Fall. The minarets of Nuruosmaniye Mosque scrape the sky, one can walk the entire roof line with a special pass.

Nick Merdenyan Calligraphy, Istanbul

Turkish souvenirs abound in the ancient market, a shopper’s paradise. One of the most unusual shops in the Bazaar is a tiny hard to find emporium owned by Nick Merdenyan. Nick’s is an obscure alley, a little treasure trove of intricate calligraphy – a particularly unusual form of calligraphy, as his craft is hand painted on dried leaves.

He calls his art form “Nick’s Missionary Leaves of Tolerance and Peace.” Since 1968, Nick has intricately painted traditional symbols and prayers of three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – on dried leaves and has gained international recognition for his masterful skills.

Nick Merdenyan Calligraphy, Istanbul

His inspiration began when he received a potted plant for the baptism of his only son. As the plant shed its leaves, Merdenyan removed two of the leaves and preserved them between the pages of a book. Time passed, his son grew up, Nick opened the old book to discover the flattened leaves aged by time. From a dry leaf, it had transformed into a perfect, almost transparent silky canvas. Nick shared the leaf with a calligrapher friend. Captivated by the delicate yet sturdiness of the leaf, the two friends begin to experiment. The master calligrapher transcribed the Tughra – the signature of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent – on one leaf and Yunus Emre’s epigram “Love who loves you” on the other with Kufic letters. The experiment, which was nothing more than a test, captured the attention of two American tourists visiting his shop. Wanting to buy the leaf, Nick Merdenyan sold his first work and began his life journey.

Nick Merdenyan, Istanbul

He began by investigating the type of plant and discovered it is a dieffenbachia from Denmark. He imported the leaves for many years until they stop exporting the leaves, at which point he turned to Florida. He uses two types of leaves: Dieffenbachia and Caladium. The leaves take approximately two years to transform into the perfect canvas. His vision and inspiration are derived from the three Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Nick painstakingly inscribes tender messages of peace, love, and unity on the delicate dry leaves. Some details are so intricate, he uses a cat hair brush under a magnifying glass. The deeply painted hues include a dynamic royal blue, a rich gold, deep red and an array of hues as vibrant a rainbow.

He has gained international recognition; acclaimed collectors include Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Queen Letizia of Spain, and me!

Known as The Lord of the Leaves, a visit to this Armenian craftsman is worth seeking out in the labyrinth of Grand Bazaar shops. Our guides can arrange a visit.