Last Updated: 2020-12-17
Every time I discover a new crowded place I like to get a bird’s-eye view of it. It’s funny how it seems to acquire a new meaning: individuals stop being just individuals and become part of something bigger.
This article features possibly the most iconic bird’s-eye view in all of Morocco: the Chouara tannery. Let’s get started!
As often happens in Morocco, history is mixed with local lore, so it’s hard to say for sure when the trade of tannery and leathercraft became an integral part of the culture in Fez: if you ask the locals, they’ll tell you that the tanners have been here as long as the city has, since the 9th century. If we stick to historical documentation, leathercraft wouldn’t be part of the city’s economic development until three centuries later.
In either case, in the more or less 1000 years since tanneries have been operating here, very little if anything at all has changed in the way they do their work. One thing that did change was their location. The tanneries were originally located in the artisan’s area in the heart of the medina. Later, it was decided that the less-than-pleasant aromas inherent to the trade would be more welcome on the outskirts of the city.
The second is the level of organization. Originally, there were only individual artisans who would occasionally cooperate with each other. Even with such a simple structure, Fez leather products were still sought after throughout the world. Today, the three tanneries that are still active, Sidi Moussa, Ain Azliten and the focus of this article, Dar Dbagh al-Chouara, meaning “the tanning house”, currently function as large-scale cooperatives with their own administration.
Although they’ve kept the ancient tradition of auctioning skins in a market in the medina, as if it were a fish market, the current infrastructure allows them to reach agreements with major international corporations. The next time you buy a leather product from a famous brand, look at its label. It may surprise you.
This business model is deeply rooted in tradition, but has been able to evolve and survive the passage of time, and currently employs more than 300 families. This is somewhat surprising since, as you’ll see in this article, tanning is neither a pleasant nor a particularly well-paid profession (a tanner earns the same as any unskilled worker in Morocco, approximately 2500 dirhams per month).
Most tanners start in the trade because their fathers are also tanners. This makes it possible for them to get started in a trade where you usually need a fellow tradesman’s recommendation. And although the pay is not especially high, it’s at least a good, stable income.
How to Get There
There are two ways to get to the Chouara Tannery, one that is more direct and another that is longer but which is a better option if you plan to check out the rest of the medina on the same day. The second option is the most common.
If we prefer the first option, we can take a taxi straight to the tannery. Even if your accommodations are on the outskirts of Fez, it should only cost you around 25 dirhams. It’s easy to get there since it’s at the edge of the medina, in an area with easy access for vehicles. We can tell the taxi driver to take us to the parking areas facing the river near the Lalla Yedounna Square.
If we opt for the longer, more rewarding option, the usual thing is to enter the medina from the west, going through the famous Blue Gate along the Tala’a Kbira street coming to a crescendo at the far eastern end where the Chouara Tannery is. There is more detailed information in our article about what to do in Fez.
We’ll smell the tannery before we see it. It’s surrounded by narrow three and four storey buildings where we can find all sorts of leather products for sale.
Fortunately, there are representatives to help guide us. No need to give them a tip, since the leather shop owners pay them to show us into the stores. They’re the real ones with their eyes on our wallet, since they have to make enough money to pay their dues to the cooperative and their representatives.
Once we go in, they’ll provide you with a sprig of mint, which we should keep for the whole tour since it’ll protect us from the odor. Then, we head up two, three or four floors, passing through a series of narrow corridors, until we reach a shop with balconies and views of the tannery.
Then, we will be offered an unforgettable panorama, a barrage of sensations: chills at the griminess of the working conditions, fascination at the show of light and color, and the uncanny impression of having traveled back in time.
Leather Tanning Process
Our senses are bombarded. The strong odor fills our nostrils as we take in the honey-comb of huge containers below and the half-naked workers rubbing and cleaning the skins.
There is an area of containers holding a whitish liquid, and another with a rainbow of different colors. There is a kaleidoscope of finished hides around the entrances and the perimeter, as well as some lying on the terraces that surround it.
The first part of the tanning process, which we can’t see where we are now, takes place when the hides arrive. Once the animals are slaughtered and skinned, the hides are soaked and superficially cleaned. Then, after adding copious amounts of coarse salt to them, they are dried in the sun.
Later, a porter is called to collect them and take them to the tannery. In the medina, it’s typical to see donkeys pulling carts loaded with skins.
Now, the hides are immersed in the vats filled with the whitish liquid, which is made up of lime, pigeon droppings, ashes and cow urine, to make the hair easier to remove and to make the hides more supple. As you may have guessed, this is the main reason for the strong odor that this place is known for.
Next, the skins are thoroughly prepared for dyeing, carefully removing any flesh or hair that may still be attached. This part of the process is more detail-oriented but less demanding physically and is usually done by older workers in small workshops around the perimeter.
Before they can be dyed, the hides are taken to huge centrifugal barrels where the whitish liquid is thoroughly extracted. This is one of the few parts of the process where modern technology is allowed to lend a helping hand.
The hides take on their final color when they are left submerged in tubs of natural dyes along with fig paste and oils to soften them and make them more resistant to wear-and-tear.
Lastly, the hides are dried on the rooftops around the tannery. Once the whole process is finished (approximately 48 hours) they are collected and sold to large companies or auctioned off.
Shopping in the Bazaars around the Tanneries
It’s only natural to want to take along a souvenir from such a unique place… which reminds me of what happened the first time I accompanied a group of travelers to the tannery:
First, keep in mind, as we mentioned before, Moroccan leather products are well-known for being the perfect combination of high quality and low cost一an irresistible bargain.
Several in our group bought leather items, most of them low cost, such as slippers or small purses, of course not without smelling and stretching them to confirm their quality. A couple of them invested more money in a travel bag or a briefcase.
On the way back, after leaving the tannery for a while, our noses recovered their sensitivity and we discovered that the items we had bought reeked of the tannery.
Each one had different ideas for a solution to the problem: simply letting them air out, applying baking soda to the item, putting it in an airtight bag with coffee beans, etc.
Afterwards, we kept in contact, and they told me that nothing they tried worked and that they had no choice but to throw the items away.
After that experience, in the countless times I have accompanied a group of travelers to the tanneries, I’ve always tried to convince them not to buy any leather products here. But the temptation is too much to resist, and the same thing happens every time. It’s like déjà vu.
Please, do not buy leather products in the bazaars around the tannery, especially if they’re expensive or large (the bigger they are, the stronger they smell), since there’s no guarantee of quality.
Our intuition might tell us that we would find top-quality products at such an iconic location, but nothing could be further from the truth. The bazaars have no connection with the tanneries, and merchants use the penetrating smell to mask the telltale odor of poor-quality leather from other places and pass it off as something more authentic than it actually is.
Should you be tempted, rest assured that there’s no home remedy against the stench, because when leather smells bad it’s usually because the tannery received the hide after it had already started rotting.
If you want to buy good-quality, low-cost leather products in Morocco, your best bet is to make your purchase at any store in the medina.
Most of you are probably asking yourself the same question: is the tannery worth visiting at all?
The tanneries leave no one indifferent. If the stench is fairly intense even overlooking it from three storeys up, imagine what it must be like to be a tanner on the ground floor working in the summer heat, when the vats give off even more odor.
Although the work is usually done from outside the vats with sticks or with bare hands, there are times that the hides fall to the bottom and someone has to go in and get it.
Even though some parts of the tannery experience are less than pleasant, if you enjoy Moroccan culture you should visit at least once. It’s good to get outside of your comfort zone sometimes and enjoy new adventures. Plus, this experience truly feels like a trip back in time and it’s part of the rough-around-the-edge aesthetic that is exactly what so many people love about Fez.
I hope this article answers your questions about the tanneries. Enjoy your tour! Much love to all!
Coordinates: 34°06′N -4°97′W (see location)
Size: Roughly ¼ acre (1000 m²) if we only consider open space, double that if we include the surrounding storage areas, drying spaces for the hides and the administrative areas.
Construction date: Although the Fez tanneries have existed indisputably since the 12th century, according to oral tradition, they began with the founding of the city, in the 9th century.
Hours: 8am to 7pm every day. It’s better to go during the coldest hours of the day to avoid the bad smell.
Entrance fee: Viewing the tanneries from the height of the surrounding bazaars is free. For a street-level, self-guided tour, just give the manager a tip of no more than 50 dirhams, and make sure to wear rubber-sole shoes, as the floor is very slippery.
If you want to know more about the city, check out our Fez tourism guide.