Traditional tanneries in Fez, Morocco

Tanneries traditionnelles dans la médina de Fès au Maroc

Rendezvous in Chouara, the tanners’ district of Fez

Fès, Morocco’s third-largest city, was founded in the 8th century and today has a population of over one million. The city has a distinct traditional character, particularly the old town or medina known as Fès el Bali, which has remained largely unchanged for centuries. Set behind a high rampart, the medina has narrow, pedestrianized streets where hundreds of merchants and craftsmen sell a range of products such as dates, fish, spices, copper vases, carpets and musical instruments. Fès is also famous for its leather goods, most of which come from the tanners’ souk. The souk is home to three ancient tanneries, the largest and oldest being the Chouara tannery, which is almost a thousand years old and is one of the most famous in the country along with the one at the Bab Debbagh gate in Marrakech.

Tanneries traditionnelles dans la médina de Fès au Maroc

The tanneries of Fez consist of numerous stone vases filled with a wide range of dyes and various liquids spread like a large palette of watercolors. Dozens of men, many of them standing waist-deep in dyes, work under the scorching sun. The tanneries process the skins of cows, sheep, goats and camels, turning them into high-quality leather goods such as bags, coats, shoes and footwear. All this is done by hand, without 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, hides are first soaked in a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water and salt. This caustic mixture helps to break down the strength of the leather, loosening excess fat and flesh, and any hair that may have remained on it. The hides are soaked in this mixture for two to three days, after which the tanners remove excess hair and fat by hand to prepare the hides for dyeing. The hides are then soaked in another set of vats containing a mixture of water and pigeon droppings. The pigeon droppings contain ammonia, which acts as a softening agent, enabling the leathers to become malleable so that they can absorb the dye. The tanner uses his bare feet to knead the hides for up to three hours to obtain the desired suppleness.

Tanneries traditionnelles dans la médina de Fès au Maroc

The skins are then placed in dyeing pits containing natural plant dyes, such as poppy flower (red),indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed into skins to make them looser, and olive oil, which will make them shiny.

Once the leather has been dyed, it is left to dry in the sun. The finished leather is then sold to other craftsmen who make the famous Moroccan slippers, known as babouches, as well as wallets, handbags and other leather accessories. Many of these products are making their way to European markets.

To get the best views of the tanneries (especially for photography), you’ll need access to the surrounding terraces of the leather stores. Just walk into one of the stores and ask for a tour, and the salesman will give you an insight into how the hides are processed and tell you which dyes come from which plants. Pigeon droppings and cow urine produce a pungent smell, so the guide will certainly provide you with sprigs of fresh mint to help you overcome the odor.

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Have you visited the tanneries of Fez?

Sources: 1, 2, 3. Photos: 4