The city of Fez – Morocco’s third largest city – was founded in the 8th century and is now home to over one million people. The city has a distinct traditional character, especially the old town or the medina called Fes el-Bali, that has hardly changed for centuries. Located behind a high wall, the medina has narrow, car-free alleys where hundreds of merchants and craftsmen sell a range of products such as dates, fish, spices, copper urns, carpets and musical instruments. Fez is also famous for its leather products and most of it comes from the leather bazaar (souq). The souq is home to three ancient leather tanneries, the largest and oldest being the Chouara Tannery, which is almost a thousand years old.
Fez’s tanneries are composed of numerous stone vessels filled with a vast range of dyes and various liquids spread out like a tray of watercolors. Dozens of men, many standing waist deep in dyes, work under the hot sun tending to the hides that remain soaked in the vessels. The tanneries processes the hides of cows, sheep, goats and camels, turning them into high quality leather products such as bags, coats, shoes, and slippers. This is all achieved manually, without the need for modern machinery, and the process has barely changed since medieval times, which makes 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 tough leather, loosen excess fat, flesh, and hair that remain on them. The hides are soaked for two to three days after which tanners scrap away excess hair fibers and fat in order to prepare the hides for dyeing. The hides are then soaked in another set of vats containing a mixture of water and pigeon poop. Pigeon poop contains ammonia that acts as softening agents that allows the hides to become malleable so they can absorb the dye. The tanner uses his bare feet to knead the hides for up to three hours to achieve the desired softness.
The hides are then placed in dying pits containing natural vegetable 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 on the hides to turn them yellow, and olive oil, which will make them shiny.
One the leather is died it is taken out to dry under 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, furniture and other leather accessories. Many of these products make their way into the European markets.
The best views of the tanneries can be obtained from the surrounding terraces where the leather shops are located. Just visit one of the shops and ask for a tour, and the salesperson will give you the rundown on how the hides are treated and what dyes come from what plants. The pigeon poop and cow urine produces a stench so pungent that the tour guide will often supply sprigs of fresh mint to visitors to help them overcome the odor.