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Visiting the leather tanneries of Fes
Fes is Morocco’s 3rd largest city and has clung onto its ancient past with considerable ease. The souqs, wedged into the tight, car-free alleys, sell everything from musical instruments to spices. And of course, an abundance of leather goods. There are 3 ancient leather tanneries in Fes. The oldest, and most popular with tourists is the Chouara Tannery. Michael Palin’s series “Sahara” featured the tannery in one episode and it’s over 1000 years old. No wonder visiting the leather tanneries of Fes was high on our list of things to do.
How to get to Chouara Tannery in Fes
Finding the tannery is somewhat of a challenge. The ancient Fes el-Bali Medina is easier to navigate than you might think. But finding the place you want to go to, seems more luck than well planned navigation. In fact, our plan was not to look for it at all. We were pretty convinced if we spent long enough exploring the labyrinth of lanes and souqs, we’d eventually stumble across it. If you’re visiting the leather tanneries of Fes and want to make a bee line for them, I suggest following your nose! As you get closer, the stench will start to fill your nostrils. And you’ll see a steady stream of donkeys carrying animal skins. It’s a good sign you’re heading in the right direction.
Not quite what we were expecting
The chap at the non-descript entrance was so eager to take us inside. We expected he’d have a leather stall inside so he was keen to give us the guided tour, increasing his chances of a sale at the end. We walked up the never ending narrow staircase, passing hundreds of leather jackets and handbags hanging on the walls.
As we finally reached the top, glad for a brief rest, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The world famous Chouara Tannery, operating for a thousand years or more, was closed for refurbishment! Gutted is an understatement of our sentiment. The salesman told us not to worry because we could watch the entire leather making process on a video on his 40″ plasma TV, proudly mounted on the wall, surrounded by his wares. We explained that wasn’t quite what we were looking for.
Visiting the leather tanneries of Fes (finally)
We’re here now and we’re not leaving without visiting the leather tanneries of Fes. Not letting this minor blip defeat us, we hunted out another. I’m afraid we have no idea what it’s called, or how to get there. What we do know is that it was far less of a tourist attraction than the first, even if the former was closed!
Leather making is a 7000 year old craft and in Fes, the manufacturing process has changed little over 1000 years. The traditional guild workers operate under a hierarchy. Women aren’t allowed to work in the tannery, although judging by the stench, I’d say it’s no hardship. Health and safety is non-existent.
The leather making process
Preparing the animal skins
With the animal skinned, Fes couriers collect and deliver the hides to the tanneries so they still have a full coat of fleece and fur. So the first step is to de-hair them. Because it makes it easier to remove the bulk of the fur, each hide is given a quick soak in a chalky, lime water filled bucket.
This has to be the most unpleasant scent I’ve ever inhaled. Ever! The workers seem immune to it, smiling, laughing and somewhat proud of their role. If it’s any help, all the remaining aromas to attack your nasal passage during the rest of the tour seem almost floral after getting a lung full of this stench. The smell of rotting flesh just made us both gag. Trying not to breathe through our noses, we carried on with our self-guided tour.
Refining the animal skins
With most of the hair and fur removed, it’s time to get to work on the detail. To remove every trace of flesh and hair, the tanners soak the skins in vats of a pretty horrendous concoction. Whoever thought up the mixture of limestone, pigeon poo, cow brain & urine, animal fats, fish oils, sulphuric acid and chromium salts? Who ever he was, (couldn’t possibly have been a girl), he’s either a hero or a rogue! My nose suggests the latter! Yep, it stinks, but at least it’s not rotting flesh.
Removing the hair and fat
I know it sounds gross. But how else could you remove hair and excess fat from the skins? Now that it’s all loose after a good dose of that smelly potion, the workers scrape the unwanted hairs and fat off by hand. Less smelly but still a messy job.
Softening the leather
With the nasty stuff finished, the skins are almost leather. But different grades of leather need different levels of softness. I’m no expert though. To soften the leather, the tanners soaked them again in another vat of pungent tannic acid. The tanners get hands on involved here. They’ll jump into the vat and knead the skins with their bare feet for hours until they have the softness they want. They’ll even take their tea breaks in the vats.
The smell is getting sweeter though, although I’m sure the rotting flesh stench clings on longer than anything else.
Skiving the leather
The softened leather is allowed to dry under the sun, until ready to be buffed and polished. This guy spends all day, every day doubled over skiving and polishing these leather skins. And yet he’s still smiling! When he finishes each hide, the leather is ready for the final step in the process.
Dying the leather
The hides in Fes are all dyed with natural ingredients. The tanners use saffron for yellow, poppies for red and henna for orange. Soaking the skins, the tanners give each hide the necessary attention to make sure they’re evenly coloured to the desired shade.
And the only thing left to do…..
In the unrelenting heat of the ancient Fes el-Bali Medina, the tanners lay out the hides on the roof to dry. Once dried, the tannery sends the hides to the leather workers and artisans to create some of the wonderful products you see filling the alleys of the souqs all across Morocco.
In the height of summer, you’ll need a strong disposition for visiting the leather tanneries of Fes. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating insight to ancient craftsmanship and will make you appreciate those leather souvenirs a little bit more. But I warn you, the assault on your nose is nothing short of evil.