As I succumb to the heat of my steamy surrounds, the Jerusalem gold marble remains refreshingly cool against my skin. My body is bathed in sweat, and is completely enveloped by voluptuous clouds of eucalyptus-scented mist that waft over the ornamental tile work, up the magnificently arched columns, and towards the domed ceiling where daylight barely filters through small glass roundels. It’s a moist and gentle warmth that invites my body to languish over the smooth marble surfaces. The feeling is startlingly sensual.
Within a few minutes, Jasmine, an Arab-Afghani, ushers me to the gommage (body scrub) area. She slathers my body in syrupy, black Moroccan soap, loofahs me from head to toe, and then rinses off the suds to leave my skin feeling soft and supple. As the cooling water patters down my cheeks, she whispers an Islamic blessing of thanks that acknowledges the cleansing ritual of the hammam, a spa experience like no other. But then Miraj, Canada’s only Islamic steam bath, is no ordinary spa.
Entering Miraj (which means paradise), is like stepping into something from the Arabian Nights and, save for the magic carpets, exudes an exotic authenticity. Designed with arched windows, vaulted 20-foot ceilings, hand crafted stone mosaics, and ornamental grill work, Miraj embraces an eclectic array of furnishings: decorative leather poofs from Tunisia, Islamic styled wooden benches, gold threaded silk cushions, Moroccan light fixtures, brass door handles from Spain, gold tables from the souks (middle east bazaars) of Paris, Indian antiques, polished Venetian plaster, handcrafted mosaic fountains, and Arabic music. Everything evokes a sense of the Middle East.
Located just outside of Vancouver’s downtown core, Miraj is much smaller and more luxurious than the traditional hammans of North Africa or the Middle East. There, it’s not unusual to share a steam with 80 other people. Miraj, on the other hand, can handle less than 20 guests a day, making it a much more private experience.
An evolution of the Greek baths and Roman balnea, hammans (which in Arabic means ‘spreader of warmth’) really came into their own when in 600 AD, the Islamic prophet Mohammed endorsed them as an enhancer of fertility. Hammams became known as ‘the silent doctors’ for their curative effects of ailments such as arthritis and congestion. Even today, many Arabs consider them essential to maintaining good health.
Indeed, the hammam was so integral to the life of Moslem women that if a husband were to deny his wife her visit to the hammam, she had grounds for divorce. In a place where no physical flaws or social foibles could escape notice, mothers often used the hammam to inspect prospective brides for their son. And it was perfectly acceptable for her to kiss a possible daughter-in-law to learn whether or not she had bad breath.
Thankfully, Miraj offers no such encounters. Rather, it provides an ancient source of health and well being in a modern context. It is an oasis – an Aladdin’s Cave for the soul where, after every steam clean and polish, massage and mystical make-over, anything seems possible. Save, perhaps, for the flying carpets.
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