Inside the traditional and colorful leather tanneries of Fez, Morocco
The city of Fez, the third largest city in Morocco, was founded in the 8th century and today has more than a million inhabitants. The city has a traditional distinct character called Fez el Bali, which has hardly changed in centuries. Located behind a high rampart, the medina has narrow, pedestrian alleys where hundreds of traders and artisans sell a range of products such as dates, fish, spices, copper vases, carpets and musical instruments. Fez is also famous for its leather goods, most of which come from the tanners' souk. The souk shelters three ancient leather tanneries, the largest and the oldest being the tannery of Chouara, which is nearly one thousand years old and is one of the most famous in the country with that of the Bab Debbagh gate in Marrakech.
The tanneries of Fez consist of many stone vases filled with a wide range of dyes and various liquids spread like a large palette of watercolors. Dozens of men, many of whom are standing waist-deep in dyes, work under the scorching sun. The tanneries process the skins of cows, sheep, goats and camels, transforming them into high-quality leather goods such as bags, coats, shoes, etc... All this is done by hand, without requiring the use of modern machinery, and the process has changed very little since medieval times, making these tanneries absolutely fascinating to visit.
At the Chouara tannery, the skins are first soaked in a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water and salt. This caustic mixture helps to break down the resistance of the leather, detaching excess fat and flesh, and hair that has remained on it. The skins are soaked there for two to three days, after which the tanners manually remove excess hair and fat in order to prepare the hides for dyeing. The skins are then soaked in another set of tanks containing a mixture of water and pigeon droppings. Pigeon excrement contains ammonia which acts as a softening agent which allows the leathers to become malleable so that they can absorb the dye. The tanner uses his bare feet to knead the skins for up to three hours to obtain the desired flexibility.
The skins are then placed in dye pits containing natural plant dyes, such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedarwood (brown), mint ( green), and saffron (yellow). Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed on the skins to make them looser, and olive oil, which will make them shiny.
Once the leather is dyed, it is allowed to dry in the sun. The finished leather is then sold to other artisans who make the famous Moroccan slippers, as well as wallets, handbags and other leather accessories and products. Many of these products are making their way into European markets.
To get the best views of the tanneries (especially to take photos), you need to access the surrounding terraces of the leather shops. Just walk into one of the shops and request a visit, and the seller will give you an overview on how the skins are treated and tell you which dyes come from which plants. Pigeon droppings and cow urine produce a pungent odor so the guide will certainly provide you with sprigs of fresh mint to help you overcome the odor.