A visit to the tanneries of Fes is a sight to behold, unlike any other. The tanneries are where the country’s hides are treated, dyed and turned into the finest leather used to produce some of Morocco’s most renowned exports- leather handbags, ottomans, furniture and the well known, Moroccan slippers, called ‘Babouches’. But be prepared for an onslaught on your senses, both visual and olfactory. Let’s just say that you will never forget the pungent smell emanating from the area.
The tanneries operate in the exact same way today as they did when they first began in the 11th century. They are jam packed with hundreds of stone vessels sitting side by side, filled with various concoctions used in the tanning process and the task of producing a usable piece of leather is a lengthy one. Firstly, the hides are places in a vessel containing a caustic mixture that strips the hide of any remaining hair and fat. The remnants will be manually stripped after many days of soaking. The next stage is a long steep in a mixture of water and pigeon poop! This charming combination is designed to soften the leather, making it more pliable so it can be moulded and easily absorb the dyes that colour the leather. The ‘Tanners’ working these enormous vats literally stand inside the vats, agitating the mixture with their feet, just as one would stomp on grapes in order to extract the juice for wine making. Finally the leather is hand dyed into a spectacular array of colours. Most dyes are produced using natural materials such as henna, saffron, mint, poppy and indigo. The dyes are also vigorously rubbed in by hand or agitated in the large vats, then laid on the roof tops of Fes surrounding the tanneries- left to dry in the hot, desert sun. Truly an amazing sight, with thousands of hides lining the roof tops at any given time.
As you can see making leather in Morocco is and extremely labour-intensive job but well worth it when you see the finished product. From this point, the leather pieces will be sold to the craftsmen in order to create their wonderful, leather products. Naturally, being Morocco there is no shortage of people offering to take you on a tour of the tanneries- for a price, of course! My advice to you would be to take them up on their offer. What a wonderful experience complete with the sights, smells and sounds familiar only to Morocco. They will give you a fresh bunch of mint to sniff in order to mask the intense smell, so use it!! And buy a special, leather pouf or a stunning, hand embossed handbag while you’re at it!