A Visit to the Fez Tanneries in Morocco: The Brutal Reality Behind Leather

Everyone should visit the tanneries in Fez, Morocco once in their life.  Basically the tanneries transform raw animal hides into leather.  Observing this crude process not only fascinated me, it also shocked and nauseated me.  Regardless, a visit to the Fez tanneries serves as a highlight of any trip to Morocco.

A Visit to the Fez Tanneries in Morocco: The Brutal Reality Behind Leather

The Fez Tanneries. Chouara Tannery the largest of 3 tanneries in Fez, Morocco. Built in the 11th century, the tannery serves as the largest in the city.
The Fez Tanneries. Chouara Tannery the largest of 3 tanneries in Fez, Morocco. Built in the 11th century, the tannery serves as the largest in the city.

Table of Contents

1 – The Context of Our Trip to the Fez Tanneries
2 – Arriving at the Fez Tanneries 
3 – Observing the Fez Tanneries
4 – The Process of Creating Leather
5 – My Synopsis of the Fez Tanneries 

1 – The Context of Our Trip to the Fez Tanneries

Twenty years ago my partner, Allan, visited the tanneries in Fez on a trip to Morocco, and highly recommended the experience.  Additionally our friend, Bruce, who currently works for the US Embassy in Rabat, Morocco, connected us with an embassy guide named Marco.  Marco specifically provides tours of the medina, where the tannery is located.  Most notably these tours often consist of visiting US dignitaries like former President Obama.   So basically we were going to receive the full VIP experience for a suggested tip only fifty USD total.

Having a guide is essential, considering the Fez medina spreads out in a rat’s nest of narrow alleys.  Even though Allan and I enjoy exploring aimlessly, we figured a guide could direct us to the best shopping areas, and help us from getting indefinitely lost in a labyrinth.   Plus the tanneries hide in a back alley, thus making them difficult to discover without insider knowledge.

The Fez Tanneries. The production of leather consists of manual labor and uses no modern machinery. This process has been used since the medieval era.
The Fez Tanneries. The production of leather consists of manual labor and uses no modern machinery. This process has been used since the medieval era.

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2 – Arriving at the Fez Tanneries 

After driving into Fez by car, we met Marco in the late afternoon at our hotel.   Next we packed back into our sedan and drove for fifteen minutes to the older part of town where the tanneries are located.   After parking just outside the medina, we followed Marco inside.

Through narrow passages we traveled for ten minutes until we stopped outside a multi-level leather shop.  Presumably this marked the entrance to the tanneries.  Without any clear signage, finding this on my own would have proved challenging.

An attendant outside handed us some mint leaves, which we took gladly.  After all, friends pre-warned us to place the mint under our noses to mask the smell.  Apparently the odor inside the tannery is so potent, one might compare it to the smell of dead animals.

We climbed up three flights, past racks of leather goods.  From clothing to accessories, all freshly made leather was for sale.  Since shopping was reserved for after the tannery tour, we passed by until we reached the viewing area.

In a large room with seating in the middle we noticed an entire wall open to the outside.  We can noticed other travelers congregated in this section as if spectators to some grand event.  Thus I wandered over to the apparent viewing area of the Fez tanneries.

The Fez Tanneries. The only way to access the tanneries is through one of the many leather shops that have an open-air terrace.
The Fez Tanneries. The only way to access the tanneries is through one of the many leather shops that have an open-air terrace.

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3 – Observing the Fez Tanneries

What hit me first was the smell.  Even with the mint under my nose the aroma of rotting flesh pervaded my persona.  Death was in the air.  We could see and smell the raw reality transpiring a few hundred feet below. 

In roughly the size of a football field, a large L-shaped area was formed by a series of faded-yellow buildings standing side by side.  In between hundreds of circular, brown vats held a colorful assortment of liquids.  To the right larger ones held hues of blues, reds, orange, yellow and brown.  To the left smaller vats held liquids ranging in tone from light blue to aqua. 

Since we arrived near closing at 5pm, most of the workers had left.  However, some were still present.  A couple toiled inside the drums, manipulating the hides by hand.  Others stood on the sidelines with the donkeys and carts.

The Fez tanneries. The city of Fez is Morocco's third largest city. Founded in the 8th century, is now houses over one million people.
The Fez tanneries. The city of Fez is Morocco’s third largest city. Founded in the 8th century, is now houses over one million people.

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4 – The Process of Creating Leather

Leather in Fez is principally made from the skins of sheep, cow, goat and camel, with the later two being the most valuable.  First, the hides are placed in an ashen-hued concoction of limestone, cow urine, pigeon poop, salt and water for two weeks.  The limestone softens the skins while the bird turds bleach them.  Locals are actually paid to collect and deliver the avian feces to the tanneries.  Apparently the acid in the poop makes the material more pliable. 

Subsequently the pelts are transferred to vats filled with water and dye for three weeks.  This adds the leather’s distinctive color.  Essentially the natural colorants used in the dyes are: red poppy, brown cedar wood, green mint, orange henna and the most expensive, yellow saffron.  Once dyed the skins are left out in the sun to dry.

With large, rubber boots, gloves and oil on their bodies workers toil inside the vats, turning over each hide manually.  The oil on their skin helps prevent the dye from coloring their bodies.  No face masks or goggles were witnessed, presumably for lack of proper safety standards in Morocco. 

The Fez Tanneries. The leather made in Fez is exported worldwide.
The Fez Tanneries. The leather made in Fez is exported worldwide.

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5 – My Synopsis of the Fez Tanneries 

Despite the crude nature of the process, witnessing it certainly brings awe and enlightenment. It’s easy to disconnect a piece of leather from the fact it originates from a cow, goat, camel or sheep.  However, smelling and seeing the process of making leather really connected the dots to me.  I’m not sure I’ll look at a piece of leather the same way again.

And as disgusting the treatment of the skins, the visuals sparked a resounding “wow” from my lips.  The mixture of colors and smells left me dumbfounded.  And then to see the workers actually entering the liquid filled vats and handling the materials by hand shocked me.  Even though we were advised the process is non-toxic, I surmise working with rotting flesh, acids and colorants has to be harmful.

I guess as long as leather remains a staple in almost all clothing from shoes to belts, this crude method will continue.  As much as I’d like to think we wouldn’t have to harm another animal again, I realize that is unrealistic.  I eat meat and I wear and use leather.  From my wallet to my shoes, leather abounds.

To use Marco as your guide, you can email me at matt@packupandgo.com. (I make no money from the referral).  For hotels we were very happy with the Fes Marriot Hotel Jnan Palace.

The Fez Tanneries. In 2015–16 the tanneries were refurbished to improve the crumbling environs surrounding the pits.
The Fez Tanneries. In 2015–16 the tanneries were refurbished to improve the crumbling environs surrounding the pits.

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DID YOU ENJOY THIS ARTICLE?  IF SO, READ MORE:

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Sharing My Top Travel Tips for Morocco

True Tales of My Week Driving in Morocco

Marveling at an Ancient Kingdom: Nine Photos of Volubilis that Fascinate

Exploring the Extravaganza that Comprises the Marrakech Medina

My Travel Nightmare: a Tour in Marrakech Gone Awry

 

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Matt Weatherbee
Matt Weatherbee

Hi, I’m Matt.  In 2008 I quit my job, sold everything and drove from Boston to Mexico to start a business.  Now I live and work in the Carribean, and spend my free time traveling the globe.  Learn more.

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