We have a saying in Arabic," announces the bespectacled young Moroccan woman forcefully exfoliating me as I lie on a hot marble slab in the ornate, Moorish-style La Sultana hotel. Adorned with crimson tilework and outfitted with copper faucets engraved in cosmic swirls, the superhumid hammam (traditional steam chamber) is heavy with the scent of eucalyptus as my caretaker runs a rough glove along my limbs, sending my dead skin cells spiraling down the star-shaped drain. "To be beautiful, you have to suffer."
By this seemingly universal criterion, I am looking better and better as my dried husk--baked by the 90-degree heat of Marrakech--is scraped away. Not to worry, she assures me in French (still spoken widely in Morocco several decades after independence). This particularly intense ritual is a time-honored element of the hammam experience, whose roots date back to early Islamic purification rites. Far from a delicate pampering, the afternoon has so far included a broasting on the marble bench, an aggressive rubdown with an olive-based Moroccan black soap called beldi (a softener and primer for exfoliation) and multiple hot dousings.
Finally I'm put back into my robe, served a steaming glass of mint tea and sent to relax alongside a huge colonnaded Jacuzzi surrounded by walkways of pink, hand-polished Moroccan stonework. Just outside the hotel's keyhole-shaped double doors, the ancient spiderweb of streets in the Medina--Marrakech's old city center--resounds with the call to prayer, shouting spice merchants, zipping mopeds, exhaust-spewing taxis, veiled women chatting on cell phones, clip-clopping horse carriages loaded with sightseeing Europeans and creaking donkey carts laden with figs, carpets and other staples of this centuries-old trading center.
But none of this can penetrate the tranquil tiled sanctuary where I now luxuriate. "Tonight you will sleep the whole night," my attendant says with a smile. Does she know that I have been suffering lately from unusual insomnia? And as the desert winds swirl through the dark cupola of the North African evening, her words, as if granted from Aladdin's lamp, come true.
Like a desert oasis, a blossoming of upscale hammams has transformed Marrakech into perhaps the hottest spa scene on the African continent. The boom has largely paralleled the brisk ascent of this vibrant market city next to the Sahara into a luxury travel destination. Until fairly recently, it was the province of beatniks and backpackers lured by cheap couscous meals, colorful Arab-Berber culture, Islamic architectural marvels like the 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque and the half-mad magic of Jemaâ el Fna, a legendary marketplace pulsating with snake charmers, belly dancers, henna artists and merchants of all kinds. These days, regular nonstop flights from style capitals like London and Paris disgorge masses of well-heeled weekenders. Celebrities shop in the souks (covered bazaars), and nondescript doors in dusty lanes open onto gastronomic shrines and designer boutiques. Though still beset by some very visible poverty, Marrakech has become the Hamptons of Europe.
The hammam spa trend has evolved from a venerable public bath tradition that's nearly as old as Islam. Though the Muslim world didn't invent heated public baths--Ottoman and Arab invaders adapted the concept from leftover Roman baths in Middle Eastern lands they conquered--the Koran's emphasis on cleanliness gave the hammam a central role in daily life. Every neighborhood had one, and frequently they were attached to mosques for ablutions. "'Tis a place where people wash themselves and do away with their dirt and defilements," says the devout barber Abu Sir in the tales of the Arabian Nights. "And it is of the best of the good things of the world."
They were also recognized for their health benefits. Nicknamed "silent doctor" in preceding centuries, hammams, through their heat and sweat-inducing mechanisms, can improve circulation, ease respiratory problems, soothe sore muscles (through the elimination of lactic acid) and flush out heavy metals and other toxins, thereby aiding kidney function.