Traveling to Morocco, the ancient city of Fez and its medina can feel very foreign indeed. The walkways wind up and down through the hilly city, too narrow for cars or all but the slimmest of carts and carriages. The medina is much like it was hundreds of years ago; the pace and structure of life still follow the old rhythms. You can feel the age of the medina—and its history—with each step. Nowhere is this truer than in Fez’s tanneries.
The tanneries of Fez, holdovers from medieval times, produce much of the city’s renowned leather. Few who visit a tannery are left underwhelmed. The sight of dozens of men, many waist deep in dyes, working at a trade few outside this world could see, is a sight to behold.
Fez’s tanneries are spread out like a tray of watercolors. Deep vats hold dyes in an array of colors and shades, each manned by a single tanner. Taking the raw leather into the vat, the tanners stomp on the hides, working them underfoot for hours until they are soft and pliable, and have taken on the desired color.
The main ingredient in the vats is actually pigeon droppings, harvested every day by small boys who hope to one day become tanners themselves. The vats also contain a mixture of acids, natural pigments and cow urine. The caustic mixture helps to break down the tough leather and allow for the full absorption of the dye.
Once the leather is ready, it is taken to a nearby rooftop or clearing and laid flat in the sun to dry. From here it is sold directly to merchants and shoemakers, who use this and other raw materials to craft babouches, bags, garments and a myriad other goods for sale. Indeed, after a trip to the tanneries it’s hard not to come away with not only a new appreciation for the craft of leather making, but also for the artisans who ultimately put it to such wonderful use.
If you decide to visit a tannery while in Fez, there are a few things to bear in mind. First, while their location is by no means a secret, finding your way through the medina to an ill-marked passageway can be tricky even for the navigationally gifted. There are innumerable guides who would be happy to help you find and tour the tanneries, and even walk along the lower levels.
Your hotel or hostel can usually put you in touch with a reputable guide and probably has good relationships with a number of locals happy to show you about. Make sure, though, that you agree on a price and game plan before you set out.
Be aware, too, that the aroma of Fez’s tanneries can be just as breathtaking as the view. Considering the materials in use, this comes as no real surprise, but it’s still best to be prepared – if you get offered a bunch of fresh mint before entering, grab it with both hands While a handkerchief or scarf can only dampen the odor, you’ll be happy you have it at the ready.
Written by Margaret Jackson.
Photo by thisyearsboy.